Daniel Richards recently ascended to the top appointed wildlife post in California―president of the five-member state Fish and Game Commission, which has authority over all fish and wildlife, state parks, and other open-space areas in this ecologically diverse state. Not long after his appointment to the post, he paid $7,000 for a guided mountain lion hunt in northern Idaho and, with the help of hounds and professional guides, chased a cougar through the forest and up into a tree, then shot the trapped creature off of a limb. Richards then held the carcass of the large, beautiful big cat in a bear hug and had a picture taken, with a grin that nearly spanned Idaho’s panhandle.
It’s been a political rite of passage for governors to look to one primary qualification in selecting commissioners: the possession of a hunting license, even though hunting numbers have been in steady decline since the mid-1970s and the role of the state wildlife agencies has broadened far beyond the task of procuring game for hunters. State wildlife agencies protect all wildlife, focus on rare and endangered species, protect sensitive lands, resolve human-wildlife conflicts, and promote a range of wildlife-associated recreations, among many other duties.
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No state typifies the evolving role of fish and wildlife agencies more than California, where there’s been a precipitous drop in hunting license sales over the last three decades and practices like trophy hunting are alien to the vast majority of the electorate. There were only 268,000 licensed hunters last year in a state with 38 million people―less than 1 percent of the state’s population.
California is also a state where the people have registered their views on a number of controversial wildlife issues through the years, by voting to approve ballot measures to ban the use of steel-jawed leghold traps and poisons and to outlaw the trophy hunting of mountain lions. Gov. Ronald Reagan stopped mountain lion hunting in 1970, and voters stymied an effort by the hunting lobby to open up a season 20 years later. The hunting lobby took a second crack at it, and voters reaffirmed their original ban with a landslide vote six years later. So, in short, among a vast array of policy issues, there’s no issue where the public’s views have been better documented than on the question of lion hunting―with two statewide votes on the subject, and an emphatic thumbs-down on the practice.
That’s what makes Dan Richards’ sideshow in Idaho―with the infamous picture printed in Western Outdoor News―so offensive to so many Californians. He has a special responsibility as president of the Fish and Game Commission to show a respect for wildlife and also for the views of Californians, diverse as they are.
He’s now sacrificed that mantle of leadership by shooting a mountain lion out of a tree, and I don’t think he can reclaim it. Oscar Wilde was talking about fox hunting when he said it was “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” but he might as well have been talking about lion hunting, which has been banned in the Golden State for more than four decades now and is so deeply distasteful to Californians.
Ironically, Richards took the Commissioner spot a few years ago of Judd Hanna, who is a lifelong hunter from northern California, but the sort of responsible hunter who bridges the divide between ardent animal advocates and hunting enthusiasts. Hanna is personally and professionally committed to recreational hunting, but he abides by codes of conduct, including fair chase and utilization of the animal carcass. And as a commissioner, he paid attention to the science and pushed the issue of the continued use of lead shot in hunting onto the radar screen. There’s superabundant evidence that hunters’ lead was the number one cause of mortality for endangered California condors, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of other wild animals who die after ingesting this toxic product left behind by hunters. These lead bullets keep on killing and killing, long after they leave the chamber. There are non-toxic alternatives already in use, so the whole littering of the landscape with lead is so pointless today.
Hanna was drummed out of his Commission seat by the NRA and the rest of the hunting lobby, even though he was acting in the best interests of wildlife and hunters. He was replaced by Richards, whose policies on wildlife protection have been consistently retrograde. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger erred in helping to oust Hanna and by replacing him with Richards. Judd Hanna is precisely the sort of person who should serve, and Richards is a throwback to the old days when a devotion to hunting was essentially the only selection criterion for a wildlife commissioner.
Richards should step down and make way for an appointee who balances the diverse interests of the people of California―who want something more than a lion hunter in the lead. If you live in California, please contact the commission to let them know that this disregard for wildlife is unacceptable.