The ‘Highway Bum’ Bear
By Terry Rahbek-Nielsen
A tour bus pulled onto the shoulder of the road in Banff National Park. Parents, children and grandparents poured out its doors, each clutching a piece of fruit or a sandwich in their hands. Their common goal—to hand-feed the wild mother bear and her two cubs that had just emerged from the forest. Bill Schmalz recorded this scene in his 1974 film, Bears and Man.
More than thirty years later, while searching the film archives at the University of Calgary for old footage to show at the 2008 Parks for Tomorrow Conference, history professor Dr. George Colpitts found himself watching the remarkable bear-feeding scene immortalized by Bill Schmalz. Today deliberate contact with wild mother bears (and their cubs) is something park visitors avoid. This enormous shift in attitude as represented in the film made Dr. Colpitts think about the human history attached to Canada’s National Parks, and how that history has “been significantly changed and modified” over time.
In “Films, Tourists, and Bears in the National Parks: Managing Park Use and the Problematic ‘Highway Bum’ Bear,” Colpitts examines the influence film makers had on popular culture in regard to human attitude toward wild animals. He points out that until the 1970s close interaction between bears and people in National Parks was ubiquitous. “There’s a lot of evidence that tourists were disappointed if they didn’t feed a bear in Banff along roadways and get a good photo while doing it. One parks manager [interviewed in the Schmalz film] complained of an individual in Banff actually trying to push a black bear behind the wheel of his car, to get a good photo.”
George Colpitts’ essay is one of fourteen chapters that make up “A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011”, a new title from the University of Calgary Press, edited by Claire Campbell and published in partnership with Network in Canadian History and Environment.
With each chapter written by a prominent Canadian academic and public historian, the book represents a new generation in Canadian environmental history, one that recognizes the relationship between human history and environmental sustainability. Released in time for the 100th Anniversary of Parks Canada on May 19, “A Century of Parks Canada” explores the rich repository of experience during the first hundred years of Parks Canada and examines the controversies, the ideals and the lessons learned, as the balance between the wants and needs of humans and wildlife continues to be sought.
“A Century of Parks Canada, 1911-2011” is available for purchase from the University of Calgary Bookstore, and in open-access format from the University of Calgary Press website.