Controversy Around Fish and Game Commissioner for Shooting Mountain Lion Exposes Cultural Shift in California

by on March 8, 2012 · 3 comments

in California, Environment

California Fish and Game Commissioner Dan Richards with his kill.

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.”

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar john March 8, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Wow, it doesn’t help this guy that the picture shows him looking ecstatic and the mountain lion to be the kind of creature you can just give a hug to. Talk about ill advised PR!
The fact remains it was legal to shoot the animal in Idaho, but I’d like to know the circumstances behind it. Did he need to? Was it threatening anyone? What became of the carcass? Cougar meat IIRC is pretty tough and not desirable as a food source.
See I’m one of those kids who grew up with a BB gun and a fishing pole, (just east of Stockton, coincidentally) and I don’t have a problem with deer hunting IF you do it with a license and a tag, AND you consume the meat. The tag system is for population management, and if you’re eating it it’s simply part of the food chain thing. Sad but true.
If you’re out there shooting wildlife just to get a head or hide to put on your wall or get a trophy photo like the one above, you’re a dirtbag who probably should have a tag issued for YOUR hide.
Still, all this must be taken in perspective with the fact we’re talking about a very dangerous animal known to prey on humans. In California it’s rare because we outnumber Cougars greatly and seldom encounter them. Not sure we can say the same about Idaho. People often place mountain lions and bears on a pedestal of protection as “magnificent creatures” yet forget that before Winchester invented the repeating rifle, we were their prey. (I often say “bears are ass holes” because they are! one of the few animals that will kill a human just because you’re there and it feels like it!)
If nothing else this public official showed extremely poor judgement having this picture taken and circulated. It shows the kind of attitude that should not be inherent to a person involved with wildlife conservation.

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avatar TT2Toes March 11, 2012 at 12:54 pm

Commissioner Richards shot the Mt Lion at the [hunting] ranch owners request. The lion was already marked for depredation as part of Idaho’s lion population management. At the hunting ranch lodge the animal carcass was prepared and the meat taken for consumption. From the photo the lion appears to be a very healthy specimen – – no doubt due to the positive effect of efforts by Idaho’s natural resource managers. In Idaho they allow a limited number of Mt Lion hunting tags to be issued and sold to the public in order to maintain healthy populations withing environmental carrying capacity of the available habitat. By contrast in California, where we have foolishly outlawed limited hunting, we have to pay for wardens and biologists to go out and destroy lions when populations get too large for the available habitat, or when nuisance complaints are received from the “public” about problem lions. Too large a population and we get disease and starvation among the lions, and more often nuisance complaints to come out and “remove” a lion. So our outspoken animals rights public are against hunting these lions to ensure healthy population, but are OK about calling a warden to come shoot one when Fluffy or Pookey becomes lunch for a Mt Lion. Oh, and I’d wager that most hikers and trail runners in California have come surprisingly close to at least one Mt Lion without even knowing it. If you really want to help the Mt Lions, then quit developing on their habitat, and make an effort to really get to know them – – not just swallow the made for TV nature pablum programs.

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avatar Charles March 20, 2012 at 2:53 pm

Richards did this because of a Federal Lawsuit where he won a premature summary judgement that is being re-considered because the plaintiff could not make it to court, which the court knew.

The lawsuit contends that Fish & Game, Sheriff and Rangers were caught around 19 times torturing and killing animals on Marin County Open Space Preserves mainly for fun without any authorization.

The lawsuit is Nishi v County of Marin/DFG Agents 11cv0438.

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