Fair Game? On Lions, Hunters and Wildlife Policy
Should the head of an agency charged with regulating California’s natural resources stay on after flaunting his delight in killing one of the state’s most iconic species? That’s the question on many minds since a photo surfaced showing California Fish and Game Commission President Dan Richards grinning ear to ear, clutching a massive, lifeless mountain lion against his chest.
It’s not that the hunt itself was illegal. Hunting mountain lions, or cougars as they’re commonly known, is legal in Idaho, where Richards bagged his trophy, as it is in every other state where they're found—except California.
Richards killed the lion, a 115-pound, three-year-old male, after an eight-hour hound hunt left the weary animal stranded, an easy target, in the tall reaches of a Douglas fir.
The hunt happened on the Flying B Ranch, which charges $6,800 for the privilege. But Richards didn’t pay $6,800. A manager on the ranch told the Associated Press that the commissioner paid $3,200 to hunt birds. California law bars officials from accepting gifts exceeding $420 in one year, and now Richards faces an ethics complaint, filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission.
Putting aside the question of how shooting a trapped animal constitutes “sport,” lions are “a specially protected mammal” in California. It’s illegal to “take, injure, possess, transport, import, or sell any mountain lion,” unless you can prove possession on June 6, 1990, the day after voters prohibited lion hunting. That means Richards couldn’t legally bring the carcass back into the state. A moot point, anyway, since he says he ate it.
The history of lions in California follows the sorry story of large carnivores across the country. Early (non-indigenous) residents considered predators unacceptable threats to livestock and game and, in 1907, the state hired bounty hunters to exterminate them. There’s no doubt extermination was the goal: Females commanded a higher price. By the time the bounty ended in 1963, more than 25,000 lions were dead.
As public attitudes softened, the state reclassified the lion, first as a non-protected mammal in 1963, and then again as a game animal in 1969. But it wasn’t until the early ’70s, when Napa Democrat John Dunlap, backed by 52 conservation groups and thousands of concerned voters, managed to pass a four-year moratorium on trophy hunting, with the goal of conservation, not killing, in mind.
Dunlap’s moratorium was extended until 1986, when then-Gov. Deukmejian vetoed reauthorization, placing lions legally in hunters’ sights once again. But public outcry, followed by legal action, upheld the moratorium, which became permanent in 1990, when voters approved Prop. 117, the California Wildlife Protection Act. (It’s still legal to kill lions considered a threat to life or livestock.)
The last major push to repeal the ban was rejected in 1996.
Still, campaigns to reinstate hunting continue, most recently led by farmers and ranchers in San Benito County asserting (without basis) that a growing lion population places residents and livestock in jeopardy. Wildlife biologists, meanwhile, worry that humans pose the bigger threat, by developing prime lion habitat.
It’s against this backdrop that Richards, a San Bernardino County commercial real estate developer and National Rifle Association life member, traveled to Idaho, killed the young lion, sent his celebratory photo to a hunting web site, and then fired off a defiant letter to California Assemblyman Ben Hueso, one of 40 legislators asking him to resign, essentially telling him to bug off.
Richards then took his case to talk radio, calling his critics “well-funded enviro terrorists” and “lawsuit machines,” singling out the Humane Society as the “primary culprit in this deal.” He charged the society, and environmental groups, with trying “to infiltrate the department” to stifle debate. “Not only do I challenge them on a daily basis,” Richards asserted, “but it’s more insidious than that, because if they can get a toehold in there…they have the long-term handle. We’ve just done some of that with this MLPA process.”
Richards was referring to the Marine Life Protection Act, a landmark science-based initiative to conserve ocean life and habitat that some sport fishers view as a threat to jobs and fishing rights. The radio show host said the Legislature would be “pretty sick” to pursue Richards’ ouster.
Aiming to prevent that, the NRA and Keep America Fishing urged their members to support their ally in Riverside when the Fish and Game Commission met on March 7. In a press release, Keep America Fishing thanked the commissioner for “being a voice of reason throughout the Marine Life Protection initiative.”
By "reason," they meant Richards’ votes against implementing the MLPA.
Richards also voted against renewed efforts to protect California condors from lead ammunition, despite solid evidence that it’s poisoning the critically endangered birds. In 2011 alone, Richards voted against moves to protect several native species, including the black-backed woodpecker, Cedars buckwheat, American pika, and steelhead salmon.
I won’t guess how he’ll vote on a petition before the commission to list the gray wolf under the California Endangered Species Act, sparked by the appearance of OR-7, the dispersing male from Oregon. Gray wolves receive protection under the federal ESA, except in Idaho (and Montana) after a surprise move by Congress last year. When Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission met in March, its wolf management plan considered five ways to kill them.
And, yes, Flying B Ranch offers wolf hunts, which you can learn about on the Idaho commission’s web site.
Given Richards’ background, his actions shouldn’t be surprising. Officials, says the commission’s web site, have “expertise in various wildlife-related fields,” though it’s unclear how real estate qualifies as a wildlife-related field. But then only one of the five commissioners, all political appointees, has a background in biology. All the rest have careers in business, labor and farming.
Research over the past decade suggests that predators help maintain plant communities by regulating herbivores. Reintroducing wolves in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s, led to a rebound of cottonwoods, willows and other riparian species by keeping elk numbers down, and provided more habitat for songbirds.
Mountain lions, it seems, offer a similar service. A 2008 study showed that after lions disappeared from Yosemite in the 1920s, mule deer populations expanded only to decimate black oak stands by eating up all the tasty shoots before they could take hold, paving the way for other species like pines and firs to fill the void.
Biologists are also finding evidence that hunting can drive evolutionary changes in target species, selecting for smaller body size and earlier sexual maturity. But it’s unlikely the current commission would care about these studies.
It’s no wonder that hunters and sport fishers want the commission to protect their interests. Their license fees pay the bulk of state wildlife agency budgets. If the commission is serious about deflecting charges that it favors the interests of hunters and fishers and is concerned only with consuming wildlife resources, why not appoint biologists, rather than businessmen, as wildlife officials?
Prop. 117 allocated $30 million a year to protect, restore and acquire habitat for lions and other native species. If Californians really want to protect our wild heritage, we’ll have to do better than that.