LINCOLNTON, Ga. -- Pepper Shields couldn't believe her eyes when she spied a set of gigantic, three-toed tracks bisecting a muddy dirt road near Thurmond Lake.
"The prints were 7, maybe 8 inches long," the Army Corps of Engineers ranger said. "At first, I thought it was the biggest turkey track we'd ever seen. We even took pictures."
But common sense prevailed. "We kind of figured out it was an emu," she said, laughing. "I don't know how it got there, but that's what it has to be."
Nearly 20 miles away, at the other end of Lincoln County, Barbara Guillebeau had a much closer encounter Jan. 10.
"We were coming home from Atlanta about 11:30 at night," she said. "Up ahead, somebody was flashing their lights. The next thing I knew, there it was."
The 5-foot-tall, 100-pound bird had wandered onto Georgia Highway 43 into the path of Ms. Guillebeau's Honda Passport.
"It did $3,000 in damage," she said. "The police had to shoot him."
Wildlife authorities aren't pleased at reports that the emu -- a flightless, ostrichlike bird native to Australia -- is turning up in some of Georgia's not-so-vast wilderness areas.
"We have reports of them running loose all over the state," said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin. "It seems to be sort of a hobby for some people that got too expensive, and they are released in the wild."
Nationwide, there are about 8,000 emu farms, where entrepreneurs are raising an estimated 1 million birds for meat and oil, according to Jeanne Summerour, Southeast region director for the Texas-based National Emu Association.
"There have been instances where they're found outside the farming environment," she said. "But cases where they're actually turned out into the wild are very rare."
Nonetheless, the Georgia Department of Agriculture, which categorizes the giant birds as "alternative livestock," is becoming accustomed to helping the state Department of Natural Resources handle emu complaints.
"It's too early to tell how often this goes on, but it's still a concern," said Beth Brown, a Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman. "Anytime you have something released, there is an impact on existing wildlife."
Reports of wild emus on public corps lands along Thurmond Lake aren't surprising, she said.
At one time, many people thought breeding emus would prove profitable.
"Then the market bottomed out, and people found out they cost more to feed than they're worth. So some of them get turned loose," she said.
One of the most notorious emu fiascos occurred last July when a Milledgeville, Ga., farmer disposed of 60 birds by releasing them into swampland along the Oconee River.
"We've had our fill of them," said DNR Law Enforcement Sgt. Marion Nelson, who was called in to deal with the problem. "Frankly, I hope I never lay eyes on another one."
The birds were released onto land leased to a hunting club, with the idea that emus could be hunted like deer, Sgt. Nelson said.
"They thought it would be nifty to let them establish a breeding population," he said.
Problems began almost immediately.
"Things went downhill fast. They began showing up on highways, in people's back yards, everywhere. We got calls every day."
It took months, but the birds eventually were rounded up, mostly with the aid of high-powered rifles.
"We're not having any more reports, so I guess they got most of them," he said.
It is possible that Ms. Guillebeau's Jan. 10 collision in Lincoln County is the state's first confirmed emu-vehicle accident, said Pam Short of the Georgia State Patrol's public information section.
"We keep very specific deer statistics, but everything else is categorized only as accidents with animals other than deer," she said. In 1996 -- the most recent year for which complete figures are available -- there were 9,485 accidents involving animals, of which 8,589 involved deer.
The remaining 896 accidents, she said, included cows, horses, large dogs, pigs and an occasional beaver.