The 2-year-old bear may not realize it, but it only has one more chance.
Twice already it has been caught: the first time rummaging through garbage in a back yard, the second a week later after an anxious resident reported the 400-pound male junior grizzly devouring apples close to a house on the outskirts of town.
In the harsh world of bear management around here these days, if it gets caught again, it's finished.
"Each case is different, but we tend to stick to a 'three strikes and you're out' policy," said Tim Manley, a bear-management specialist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. He had just driven the bear two hours deep into grizzly territory and let the animal out of its trap. Growling, the bear glanced over its hulking shoulders at Manley and bounded up a hill. "After that it's almost impossible to teach the bear to stay away and we have to destroy it," Manley said.
This year, 28 grizzlies have been killed by humans in this region, with 13 of the killings officially sanctioned by authorities for bears that had used up their three chances.
"These are unprecedented figures," said Brian Peck of the Great Bear Foundation, a conservation group, pointing out that until this year the highest number of human-caused bear deaths was 20, in 2000.
At least 14 of the bears killed have been female. Federal guidelines allow for only four female deaths per year to sustain the bear population, and this year's killings have left scientists concerned that should the rate continue, the number of bears will decline.
Just 10 years ago people living in northwestern Montana rarely encountered grizzlies roaming outside their isolated redoubts high above the little towns in the valley floors. But things have changed, leading to tensions between those who want the bears, which grow to 600 pounds and 8 feet tall, to remain protected and those who consider them dangerous predators hampering development.
After nearly 30 years of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the grizzly bear population in the lower 48 states has burgeoned to between 1,000 and 1,300. About 500 are concentrated here in the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, a sprawling 9,500-square-mile range straddling the Canadian border with Glacier National Park at its heart.
The local human population has grown by about 30 percent in the past 10 years, swollen by an increasing number of retirees, part-time residents and visitors lured by the rugged landscape and proximity to some of the last remaining wilderness in the United States.
As human development encroaches into what was already a shrinking habitat for the resurgent bear population, confrontation is inevitable, said Chris Servheen, a grizzly bear recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
"In some ways I guess you could say that we're victims of our own success in recovering the bear population," Servheen said. "Because we have more bears today, we have more human-bear conflicts. The question now is how to ensure those conflicts are kept to the minimum."
Compounding the problem this year is a scarcity of food in the higher elevations. A late-spring frost ruined much of the berry crop, and other traditional staples of the grizzly diet, such as white-bark pine nuts, are in decline. For voracious eaters such as bears this spells disaster, increasing their need to venture closer to human territory in search of alternatives.
This is where Manley comes in. Employing what bear biologists call "aversive conditioning" tactics -- yelling, firing shotgun blanks, beanbags and rubber bullets or charging bears with specially trained Finnish dogs -- the wildlife conflict specialist teaches grizzlies to avoid human contact.
"The success rate depends on a lot of factors, including the age of the bear and its history of encountering people," said Manley, who has caught and trained nearly 100 bears in the area over the past 11 years, fitting many with radio-tracking collars. "This year has been one of our busiest yet -- this month alone we've had 50 call-outs and we caught 10 grizzlies."
But, as officials and biologists acknowledge, educating bears is one thing; making people, particularly newcomers, aware of the realities of living on the edge of grizzly territory is quite another.
Although installing electric fencing around garbage sites and replacing conventional trash bins and cans with bear-proof models has helped, most problems occur where people leave garbage and pet food out in the open.
"People must realize that if they are going to live close to bear habitat there are things that they just cannot do," Servheen said. "Many people come to live here and the only thing they know about the wilderness is whatever they have learned from Walt Disney or the Discovery Channel. You can't live in bear habitat and pretend you're living in suburbia."
Conservationists such as Peck argue that state officials should enforce a state law that makes it illegal to intentionally feed wildlife, particularly bears. So far this year, however, only one citation has been issued.
Not everyone in Montana is so concerned about the grizzly's fate. Eight of the bears reported killed in the past year were victims of illegal shootings -- that is, not carried out in self-defense -- a higher percentage of the total mortality rate than in any other ecosystem. Servheen suggested the real figure could be much higher. "We go by the understanding that for every illegal shooting we know of, there is at least one other we don't," he said.
For some area residents, the grizzly is a source of resentment, a symbol of federal interference. They associate bear protection with curbs on mining, logging and grazing and the closure of forest roads.
"The thing that bothers us most is the lack of access to land because of closed and obliterated roads," said Fred Hodgeboom, president of Montanans for Multiple Use, a local nonprofit organization that advocates wider land access.
Hodgeboom is watching with interest tentative moves by the Fish and Wildlife Service to lift federal protection for grizzlies in the greater Yellowstone area, hoping that delisting may be extended to Montana in the future. "These restrictions have had a huge impact on our economy and our way of life and it's all done in the name of grizzly bears. What is more important, the local population or the grizzly bear?" he asked.
The debate about how to balance the management of Montana's vast tracts of public land with wildlife preservation has been mostly confined to heated community meetings, but disagreements have sometimes taken a sinister turn. Environmentalists have been called "Nazis" by John Stokes, a controversial local radio talk show host. Conservationists say some critics also have referred to them as "the Green al Qaeda." People have reported death threats, according to Flathead County Sheriff Jim Dupont.
"There is a lot of emotion involved on both sides," Dupont said. "This is all about how people see the future of Montana, and many believe there is a lot at stake."
Peck believes that much of the antagonism stems from a reluctance to accept that the area has undergone dramatic changes in the past decade as more and more people move into the region.
"I think the tensions have calmed a little in the past year, but there was a sense among people that have lived here for a long time that their economy, their community and their way of life was changing and not for the better," he said. "It's always good to have some scapegoat to blame so they started focusing on grizzly bears and other wildlife, the federal government and environmentalists."
For Servheen, the key is changing attitudes and fostering responsibility as the region's growing human population colonizes even more bear habitat.
"This human-bear conflict problem is not going to go away," he said. "Some of it is down to ignorance, some of it is resistance to change. People see bears as someone else's problem, not theirs. Our challenge is to build a sense of ownership and responsibility among the people who live here so that these conflicts can be managed."