By Paul Rogers / MercuryNews.com / March 3, 2012
Hunters and environmentalists don’t often agree.
But there’s no dispute between them on one thing: This week’s sizzling controversy over whether a top California wildlife official should be removed from his post for shooting a mountain lion in Idaho is about much more than mountain lions.
It’s the latest example of a cultural shift afoot in America’s most populous state — a profound change involving urban and rural, old and young, red and blue — in which the traditional political power of hunters and fishermen is in steady decline while environmentalists and animal rights groups have grown in influence.
Since 1970, the number of people with hunting licenses in California has fallen 61 percent, to just 268,000 last year, even as the state population has doubled.
Meanwhile, over the last 20 years, environmentalists and animal welfare groups have banned mountain lion hunting, outlawed steel leghold traps, established the nation’s largest network of “no fishing zones” off the coast, and defeated plans to expand black bear hunting — all over the objections of hunting and fishing groups who once dominated state wildlife policy.
Hunting advocates are alarmed at the trend.
“People who have no background whatsoever in wildlife jump on the huggy, cute, Bambi concept of it,” said Bill Karr, Northern California editor for Western Outdoor News, the state’s leading hunting and fishing newspaper.
“They think hunting is a blood
sport. We have gotten away from the necessity of hunting for food, and people have distanced themselves from how food gets to the supermarket. When it comes to wildlife, people are really distanced from reality.”
Last month, the tensions over hunting erupted across the state when Karr’s newspaper published a photo of Dan Richards, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, grinning ear-to-ear and holding a 155-pound dead mountain lion. Richards, a San Bernardino County Republican and lifelong National Rifle Association member, shot the cougar while on a pheasant hunting trip on a ranch in Idaho.
“I’m glad it’s legal in Idaho,” he told the paper.
California voters outlawed mountain lion hunting 22 years ago.
The photo set off a maelstrom of controversy. The Humane Society, followed by 40 Democratic Assembly members and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, called for Richards’ resignation, saying he showed poor judgment and mocked the will of California’s voters whom he was supposed to be serving. Republican lawmakers, the NRA and the Safari Club rallied to his defense.
Richards can be removed by a simple majority vote of the Legislature, a vote that could come within a few days — and which could tip the balance of the powerful commission for the first time to a 3-2 environmental majority, if the governor appoints an environmental-leaning replacement.
The broad changes under way in California are linked to demographics.
“Today 80 percent of Californians live in urban areas,” said Bill Gaines, president of the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, a hunting advocacy group in Sacramento. “When I grew up north of Stockton in the 1960s and 70s, I was literally born with a BB gun in one hand and a fishing pole in another. All my friends were like that. Today, through no fault of their own, people are not raised in that lifestyle.”
Add to the urban upbringing: Kids spend less time outdoors now, choosing video games and the Internet instead.
A large influx of immigrants have come from countries without strong sport hunting traditions. And California’s Republican party, which traditionally has strongly advocated for rural issues, gun rights and hunting access, is itself in retreat, with only 30 percent of California voters currently registered as Republicans, and all the state’s major offices held by Democrats.
Animal welfare groups say a broader diversity of the public needs to be involved in decisions such as which animals can be hunted, and under what conditions.
“Not even 1 percent of the population in California has a hunting license,” said Wayne Pacelle, national president of the Humane Society of the United States. “The idea that hunters would dominate the policy-making apparatus when they represent less than 1 percent of the people is an archaic and anti-democratic notion.”
In 1990, the Humane Society helped lead the effort to gather signatures to put Proposition 117 on the ballot and pass it, making California the only Western state to ban mountain lion hunting. Since then, the Humane Society has a 5-0 record on statewide ballot measures.
The group has led campaigns to ban lion hunting and beat back an attempt in 1996 to overturn the prohibition. Its initiatives also have banned leghold traps, ended the sale of horse meat, and most recently, forbid tight cages for veal and chicken farms. Last year, it supported a law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown to outlaw the possession of shark fins, a delicacy at some Chinese restaurants.
“The political power has shifted very much in favor of animal protection,” Pacelle said.
As the heat over his lion hunt has grown, Richards has not given interviews to the mainstream media. On Thursday, however, during an interview on the “John and Ken Show,” a leading conservative talk radio show in Los Angeles, he said he was surprised by the outcry.
“Of course I didn’t know it would lead to anything like this,” he said. “I expected that potentially there might be some folks who would not necessarily enjoy it or appreciate or be in favor of it, but I didn’t have any idea it would get anything near like it is now.”
The trend isn’t going away.
The chairman of the Assembly Water, Parks and Wildlife Committee introduced a bill last week that would change the name of the state Department of Fish and Game to the state “Department of Fish and Wildlife.” The bill, AB 2402, by Jared Huffman, D-Mill Valley, was based on the recommendations of a panel of scientists, hunters and environmentalists. It also would increase access to non-hunters to state wildlife refuges and create a 10-member advisory board of biologists for the department.
Hunters and fishermen need to do a better job explaining to urban residents their history of conservation — from Teddy Roosevelt to groups like Ducks Unlimited, which spend millions preserving wetlands, said Mike Chrisman, a longtime hunter, farmer and California’s natural resources secretary under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“There’s more in agreement between the classic hunters and fishermen and the environmental groups than people realize,” he said. “They disagree fundamentally on some issues, but they agree on the need to preserve and protect species and habitat.”