The Science of Sustainability

Fair Game? On Lions, Hunters and Wildlife Policy

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mountain lion

Kyla, a female mountain lion rescued as a kitten afterpoachers killed her mother, now lives at Sonoma CountyWildlife Rescue in Petaluma. (Photo: Liza Gross)

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.

mountain lion

Mountain lions are notoriously shy and prefer to avoid humans if possible. (Photo: US FWS)

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.

OR11 ODFW

OR-11, a male pup (born spring 2011) from the Walla Walla pack in Oregon, waking up from anesthesia after being radio-collared on Oct. 25, 2011. (Photo: ODFW )

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.

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Category: Biodiversity, Biology, Environment

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Liza Gross

About the Author ()

Liza Gross, a freelance science writer and senior editor at the biomedical journal PLOS Biology, channeled an early love of wildlife into a lifelong exploration of the numerous ways diverse species, including humans, interact in the natural world. She writes mostly about wildlife, conservation, and environmental health. Her stories reflect a deep curiosity about natural and social interactions and often highlight evolutionary relationships that remind humans of their place in, and responsibility to conserve, nature. Her article "Don't Jump!" published in Slate, won an ASJA award in the op-ed category. She's a visiting scholar at NYU, a 2013 recipient of NYU Reporting Award funding and a Dennis Hunt health journalism fellow. Read her previous contributions to QUEST, a project dedicated to exploring the Science of Sustainability.
  • Anonymous

    Well said – thank you!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/SunChaserWildlife Katherine McGill

    So many questions we should be asking… such as:

    What the does NRA have to do with FISHING! It's bad enough they defend hunting to a point of tarnishing hunting itself (lead ammo is just fine in our watershed and wildlife? canned hunting is cool? seriously?)
    Toxic waste, brutal blood-sports, cruelty… have NOTHING to do with the 2nd Amendment, NRA! I'm for ethical hunting, I'm packin' and like many others will never join your corrupt missions. You scare me a lot more than your fear-mongering threats of guns being taken away. But I guess there are fools still scared and donating anyway…

    Next. Why can the Gov'r appoint a Commissioner yet not remove him? Who decided that rule, we wonder. Again, special interest manipulation equals corrupt wildlife management.

    Please note that sportsmen have NOT single-highhandedly "saved wildlife" the last 75 years. Not only is every animal killed in essence a donation from the entire public that owns it, but 80% of the weapon tax, aka Pittman-Robertson dollars, are no longer originated from sport weapons. At $749 million in 2010 alone, this is quite an annual contribution by non-hunters! Still, non-consumptive stakeholders have no seat at the table and sportsmen are still claiming fame and power over our wildlife. Why?

    Actually… some businessmen/women in the decision seat could be a could thing IF they aren't all hunters and ranchers – finally. The first thing they would do is send a memo to hunters informing them of inflation, that deer tags will cost a little more than the measly $20 most still pay.

    This 1937 wildlife conservation model is archaic but was built on a "Pay to play" premise. What happened to that plan? In a nutshell: The fox took over the hen house!

  • Anonymous

    No one has a right to be surprised by Commissioner Richards' perfectly legal Idaho hunt,nor should it have any bearing upon his commission duties here in California. Apples and oranges, in my opinion. In the commission's 130 years, ALL the commissioners have been either hunters, or fishers, or both. Perhaps it's time to expand the commission from five to seven or nine members, with specific qualifications for service. Presently there are none, and the position has been a political plum–all commissioners are appointed by the Governor to a six-year term. There's no pay for this often thankless job. The commissioners meet 10 times a year at various locations throughout the state, usually a two-day meeting. They receive a $100 stipend per day, plus travel expenses. The commission has little real authority over the Department of Fish & Game; it's mostly an advisory capacity. This, too, should change.

    The next two commission meetings are in Eureka (April 11-12) and Monterey (May 23-24), and the public is urged to attend. There is a Public Forum at the beginning of each day. (See the commission website for details and agenda.) Get involved! Our beleaguered wildlife belongs to ALL Californians, not just the hook 'n' bullet crowd.

    WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE? Then write to Gov. Jerry Brown and urge him to appoint two new, highly-qualified members to the Fish & Game Commission. There are currently two vacancies–the terms of commissioners Jim Kellogg and Richard Rogers expired months ago. Mr. Kellogg continues to claim that lead shot in the environment is not a problem for either condors or other wildlife. He's also declared the invasive striped bass to be a "California native species." The mind boggles….

    GOVERNOR JERRY BROWN MAY BE WRITTEN C/O THE STATE CAPITOL, SACRAMENTO, CA 95814. And cc your letter to John Laird, Secretary of Resources, 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA 95814; email – secretary@resources.ca.gov.

  • C172guy

    IMHO it is OK to hunt some animals that have a high natural mortality such that human hunting has little effect. Other animals that are long lived and reproduce late in life should not be hunted. Cougars are one of thise animals that should not be hunted. South Dakota seems intent on exterminating their cougars. California is the hope of the nation in protecting predators. As the human population balloons in the next decades all wildlife will be at the mercy of humans even more than today. Thank you California for setting a gfreat example.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amy-G-Dala/100003613459122 Amy G Dala

      You're absolutely correct. Apex predators evolved with no natural predators as adults. Kill an apex predator and the death is additive to all naturally caused deaths. Killing prey animals, such as ungulates, results in no net change in mortality–it's called compensatory mortality, as the death by hunting is compensated by a decrease in natural deaths–assuming that the ungulate population is near carrying capacity. The science here is also well-established. Science has shown, however, that when an extremist hunter like Commissioner Richards kills a trophy ungualte, e.g. a bull elk, that the ensuing fights to establish the new order within the herd result in a lowered birth rate as the young elks are too busy banging heads to service the cows. That's why many F&G departments limit the trophy hunting. Apex predators typically avoid the biggest animals. For instance, coursing predators such as wolves will run the herd to see what falls out. Stalk and pounce predators such as mountain lions have to be more opportunistic, but still seem to stalk easier prey. In either case, the apex predators generally do not upset the herds social structure, nor do they cut the best set of genes from the herd prematurely. Extremist hunters, in addition to being mentally phucked up, are ecological phuck ups as well. The hunter who takes a deer or elk for meat is not the problem, but if ethical hunters don't start culling the extremists, they may all find their privileges to take from the wildlife trust severely curtailed–"Get out the vote to get the lead out."

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Amy-G-Dala/100003613459122 Amy G Dala

    Great article. Now to a few points: science does not 'suggest' that apex predators protect habitat through predation–the evidence is "overwhelming." As Ms. McGill notes in an earlier comment, it has been a long while since the fantasy about hunters paying the lion's share for wildlife conservation has carried truth. Hunting and consumption (of predators) from the wildlife trust has not only a high ecological cost and loss of biological services to all, but check the budgets of F&G organizations to see where their total expenditures come from. Add in all the associated costs of maintaining a F&G department, including office rent and the like. Enforcement people aren't there because some wildlife watcher saw three more mountain goats than his daily limit (are they?). The New England cod fishery is collapsing, in spite of recent years of reduced take. With a world population that doubles about every 40 years, we had better reduce our consumption of apex predators and their habitats, and be ultra-conservative in wildlife management.

    On the cheery side of things, I would suppose that Commissioner Richards is required to pay Federal tax on the in-kind gift, and a percentage to California for its taxes. Failure to do so (if required) would be a tax problem with the IRS, filing the gift is a de facto admission to the ethics rap; this should be fun!

  • Liza Gross

    I'd like to clarify a few points. Understanding how different taxa at different trophic levels (eg, plants vs herbivores/prey vs predators) contribute to the flow of energy in food webs is exceedingly difficult because it's so hard to design studies with controls in the wild. Over the past 10-plus years, more evidence has been collected to support a theory first proposed in 1960 (www.esf.edu/efb/parry/Insect Ecology Reading/Hairston_etal_1960.pdf http://bit.ly/HbBimw), that predators help maintain plant communities by regulating herbivores like deer and elk.

    The wolf study mentioned above provides compelling evidence because the relentless killing of wolves throughout the West, starting in the late 19th century, gave biologists the opportunity to study ecological conditions with and without wolves. The lion study was similar in that biologists knew the composition of plant communities before lions were systematically removed from Yosemite, so it was possible to make conclusions about what plant (and herbivore) communities were like after the removal of lions. Other studies have supported these findings. Theoretical ecology has long suggested many of these relationships, but biologists are still doing the work to study them in the field.

    As for which constituency Fish and Game serves and whether hunters underwrite conservation (and I should note that not all hunters support trophy hunting), it's always been a problem that license fees underwrite a fair share of the agency's budget. (Maybe that's why it still calls itself "game" rather than "wildlife.") In 2011, Fish and Game received $59,294,683 from fishing licenses and $22,330,093 from hunting licenses, about 20% of the 2011-12 budget. (License Statistics – California Department of Fish and Game http://1.usa.gov/Hi1lb3)

    Fish and Game doesn't spend that money on conservation per se, according to its 2011-12 budget "fact book":

    ***The Fish and Game Code requires the DFG to fund hunting and sport fishing programs
    with hunting and sport fishing related revenues. These programs include, but are not
    limited to, fish hatcheries, fish stocking, wildlife management, management of wildlife
    areas and other public lands, law enforcement, habitat restoration, and education
    programs.***

    Raising money to conserve wildlife is especially difficult during tough economic times, even though our well being very much depends on theirs.

  • Liza Gross

    There was a problem with the link for the 1960 theoretical ecology study about predators regulating herbivores mentioned below. Here's the correct link (and citation): Community Structure, Population Control, and Competition. Nelson G. Hairston; Frederick E. Smith; Lawrence B. Slobodkin: http://www.esf.edu/efb/parry/Insect%20Ecology%20Reading/Hairston_etal_1960.pdf

  • Phillip Loughlin

    The hullaballoo about Mr. Richards's lion hunt is much ado about nothing… and little more. A licensed hunter participated in a legal hunt, regardless of how anyone "feels" about the rightness of hunting large predators, or about the methods used.

    Managed, regulated hunting of apex predators is not a threat to either the survival of the species or to the habitat. It's a far, far cry from the eradication programs carried out in the "dark ages" of wildlife conservation that decimated the populations. To equate the two and suggest that modern hunting presents the same dangers (over-expansion of large ungulate populations, for example) is irresponsible and ridiculous.

    If you're opposed to hunting, then be opposed to hunting. But base your arguments on their true source… your emotions. The idea of hunters killing "for fun" bothers the heck out of you. It offends your sensibilities. I get that. But don't try to justify your reaction with specious arguments about how hunting pressure by humans causes animals to get smaller or breed too early. The predator/prey relationship has been an ongoing part of the ecological equation since animal life began. Humans are simply another predator. If we weren't hunting, these changes (if they're even real… the hypothesis is far from proven) would be happening anyway.

    As for those who mistakenly believe that hunters are over-represented on the CA Fish and Game Commission, I'd suggest taking a closer look at the CV of the commissioners. Richards and Kellogg are the only two with valid hunting credentials (the occasional trip to the luxury bird hunting club by Rogers notwithstanding), and have proven to be the only commissioners sympathetic to hunting interests. There is a strong argument that Richards's pro-hunting stance is exactly why this whole fiasco blew up in the first place, and there's little question that the HSUS tried to leverage the whole thing to push him out of the commission.

  • Ike McCaslin

    Just to be clear, this isn't about random hunters killing "for fun" — the "licensed hunter" in this case is the head of a commission charged with defending the will of the people of California, who "feel" that mountain lions in this state should be protected, not killed.

    Spin this fish-in-a-barrel cougar kill as "hunting" all you want. But don't try to dress it up with psychobabble about the "predator/prey relationship," or specious nonsense about "the ecological equation." And don't pretend this particular hunter is just another recreationist with a sweet tooth for cougar blood. He's a public official in a role for which, it's now clear, he has nothing but contempt.

    Richards does have a legal right to kill cougars – in Idaho. But California voters have the right to have their own laws respected by those sworn to defend them. Even, yes, those with memberships in the NRA.