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You would think trying to discern where a political party stands on an issue on which the public is overwhelmingly in agreement would be easy. But ask the provincial NDP its position on the trophy hunting of grizzly bears and you'll get anything but a straight answer.

Spencer Chandra Herbert is the party's environment critic, a portfolio that includes responsibility for the grizzly hunt. In an interview, Mr. Chandra Herbert reminded me that it was an NDP government that imposed a moratorium on trophy hunting in 2001, until better scientific data could be collected on British Columbia's most iconic land creature.

It wasn't a decision that thrilled everyone. Harry Lali, then-minister of transportation and an NDP MLA from the riding of Yale-Lillooet, quit over the move, saying it was going to cost the party seats in the next election. As it turns out, the NDP was all but wiped out in the 2001 vote, but not because of its stand on trophy hunting.

The Liberals immediately rescinded the moratorium and there have been hunters flying in from around the globe ever since, each looking for the opportunity to shoot a grizzly so he can cut off its head for mounting and use its fur as a cabin rug.

The government insists that when it comes to the trophy hunting debate, opposition is centred on the cafés of Metropolitan Vancouver. However, a new poll conducted by Insights West shows that is not the case, with 91 per cent of British Columbians indicating they are against trophy hunting. As telling, disapproval numbers are as big in rural parts of the province as they are in urban areas. (This poll was similar to others that have been done.)

When I asked Mr. Chandra Herbert where the NDP stands today, he was evasive. At the very least, his responses indicated the party was not ready to declare an official position, even if he was willing to offer a personal opinion.

"I don't think you should just kill them to put a head up on a wall," he said.

But that is not the party's position. What the NDP wants to do, said Mr. Chandra Herbert, is get more information from people involved in the hunt, including First Nations, guide outfitters, bear tour operators and scientists.

"I believe we need to do proper science around the population numbers," said the New Democrat MLA. "We're looking at our position again so we don't have a position that says, 'Yes, it's great,' or 'No, it's horrific.'"

Which to me sounds an awful lot like: We're reluctant to declare a firm position before the next election because it might alienate a few voters.

For the record, Mr. Chandra Herbert said there are other questions that need to be cleared up. For instance, he says, a person can eat bear meat, contrary to what many think, if it is cooked for a long time. One matter his party needs to think about, he adds, is whether it should be all right to kill grizzlies if their meat is going to be eaten or whether shooting them should be off limits entirely.

The provincial government forbids guide outfitters from taking bear meat after kills because of fears the animal might be carrying health-threatening bacteria. It should also be noted that trophy hunters rarely if ever take grizzly meat to eat, and most often leave the corpse behind to rot.

Yet at the same time, he said, grizzlies have become increasingly comfortable with people entering their habitat for the purpose of taking photos. Consequently, they have become accustomed to seeing humans who are not a threat. But after the tourism season, he said, hunting season starts up and people enter the bear habitat for an entirely different purpose.

"To me, that's not hunting, it's slaughter," he said.

He also said the suggestion that rural British Columbians feel differently about trophy hunting than people living in urban centres was preposterous.

"I've been in rural B.C. and hunters tell me they're getting a lot of blow-back for the activities that they do because of trophy hunting," he said. "They're not trophy hunters. They hunt for sustenance, for their families, but they're finding their neighbours and others are tarring them with the same brush."

My guess is if this was only Mr. Chandra Herbert's decision to make, the NDP would take a strong position against trophy hunting. But because there are others in his caucus nervous about making a move that might cost the party a few votes, the NDP is going to rag the puck on this issue for as long as it can.

To me that strategy is madness, especially when the vast majority of the province believes trophy hunting should end. This is an issue that should be fairly straightforward for a progressive institution like the NDP.

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