Johns Creek, Ga. -- When John McCormick installed an outdoor camera to observe wildlife in his suburban Atlanta yard, he was surprised to see a large black bear.
"It sort of shocked me a bit," Hammond said.
Suburban bear sightings are up nationwide. Although licensed bear hunting has actually increased in recent years, experts say unregulated kills have gone down dramatically over the past four decades due to a combination of game laws, enforcement and changing attitudes.
"Certainly in the past, bears were considered a varmint and were killed sort of at will whenever they were encountered," said Adam Hammond, a wildlife biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Hammond said wildlife officials have tracked the increasing bear population through corresponding increases in bear sightings, road kill reports, hunting season counts and surveys from bait stations filled with sardines.
In Georgia, Bears visited 12 percent of the bait stations in 1983. In recent years, that figure has risen to 75 percent. And statistics are similar in other states.
"Everywhere that bears are in North America, they're seeing an increase in the bear population," Hammond said.
Some estimates suggest the number of black bears in North America may have increased more than 40 percent over the past 20 years.
As bears increase in number out in the wilderness, they're expanding their range in search of food, which is readily available in the suburbs in the form of outdoor trash, bird seed and pet food.
According to experts, hunting may slow, but not prevent, the spread of bears into residential areas.
"It's a great thing that the bear population is doing well," Hammond said. "The only struggle we have as managers is just to try to minimize problems so that basically bears behave. And usually bear behavior is directly tied to human behavior."
Hammond said suburban bears pose little threat to humans if they're just passing through. But residents near a bear sighting should take trash and pet food indoors to prevent the wild animals from lingering.
"If people will help the situation by just making these non-natural human provided foods unavailable to bears, we'll really have very few problems," Hammond said.
After his close encounter with a suburban bear, John McCormick said he actually looks forward to more visits.
"It doesn't bother me whatsoever," McCormick said. "They're probably fun to watch, you know -- pretty animals."