State Fish and Game Commission President Daniel Richards arrives Wednesday… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)
By firing a single rifle shot at a wandering mountain lion during an Idaho hunting trip, California's top fish and game commissioner has inflamed the political divide in a state where hunters and advocates for the hunted alike feel under attack.
The National Rifle Assn. put out a nationwide alert for members to support Daniel Richards, president of the state Fish and Game Commission, after photos he posted with his dead quarry in Idaho launched calls for his resignation from a commission that oversees wildlife policy in California. John and Ken, the popular radio talk-show hosts on KFI-AM (640), have expressed support, and "tea party" Republican Tim Donnelly of San Bernardino called him the "target of a modern-day witch hunt."
The Humane Society of the United States, Audubon Society of California and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, the former mayor of San Francisco and a darling of California's left, have demanded Richards' ouster.
The controversy is the latest flash point between the red and blue Californias, which were on full display Wednesday.
Scores of hunters, anglers and gun-rights advocates lined up to voice their support for Richards during what otherwise would have been a routine and forgettable commission meeting in Riverside. At the same time, members of the Democratic-controlled Legislature worked in Sacramento to gather enough votes to remove him from office despite opposition from the Republican minority.
"This is an outright attack on all California sportsmen by anti-hunting extremists," said Tom Pedersen of the California Rifle and Pistol Assn.
Richards' supporters called the campaign against him another indication that their way of life was being threatened. They emphasized that mountain lion hunting is not only legal in Idaho, but part of that state's effort to protect animals the big cats prey upon, including deer.
Newsom and the Humane Society joined 40 Democrats in the state Assembly in accusing Richards of flagrantly skirting the will of California voters, who approved strict protections for the cat which are overseen by the commission.
But only a handful of animal rights advocates joined the hunters, anglers and gun owners, some clad in camouflage, in the Mission Inn in Riverside on Wednesday.
Richards, an avid outdoorsman who grew up in West Virginia, sat silently as one woman derided hunters as "bloodthirsty Neanderthals" and others peppered him with criticism.
"I think it's despicable. I think he should step down," said Chris Rose, president of Last Chance for Animals in Los Angeles. "He's supposed to represent us. And then he goes into another state, where it's legal unfortunately, and goes ahead and kills this animal so he can have his picture taken with it. I think it's cowardice."
Gov. Ronald Reagan signed California's first five-year ban on hunting mountain lions in 1972; it was later extended an additional 10 years. California voters approved a ban on mountain lion hunting in 1990 and rejected an effort to repeal the ban six years later.
By far, most of those who appeared before the commission praised Richards and urged him to ignore calls for his resignation, many saying that if state lawmakers remove a commissioner for a legal hunt, the action would threaten the independence of all state appointees.
A number of hunters argued that the hunting ban in California has led to a proliferation of the big cats, posing a threat to outdoor enthusiasts and other animals. They also compared Richards' hunt in Idaho to people who travel to Las Vegas to gamble, which is legal in Nevada but outlawed in California, except on Indian reservations.
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone," said fellow commissioner Jim Kellogg, also an avid hunter.
The controversy has catapulted the state Department of Fish and Game, best known for issuing hunting and fishing licenses and its crew of wardens, from relative obscurity. The agency's role is to protect and preserve California's diverse wildlife and at the same time assist hunters and anglers — from stocking streams to preventing the decimation of certain species. Those dual roles force it to straddle California's treacherous political divide.
Richards, a Republican appointed to the five-member state commission in 2008 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was unaccustomed to the harsh public spotlight.
Known for being straightforward and honest by his supporters and arrogant and boorish by his foes, Richards has been defiant since the controversy erupted last month.
He criticized his opponents as "enviro-terrorists" when he appeared on KFI's "John and Ken Show" last week, and accused the Humane Society of orchestrating a sustained campaign to outlaw all hunting in California and across the nation. Richards also discussed the lion hunt at the Flying B Ranch in northern Idaho and said he ate meat from the big cat after the hunting trip, rebutting earlier criticism that mountain lions are hunted for trophies, not for their meat.
"It's like a pork loin. It's white meat, and it's really good," Richards said. "In frontier times, it was a delicacy."
Richards sent a picture of himself holding the dead mountain lion to the website of Western Outdoor News, which posted the photograph and quoted him saying, "I'm glad it's legal in Idaho."
Last week, a former Democratic Party official filed an ethics complaint against Richards, asking for an investigation into whether he accepted a hunting trip valued at more than the state's $420 gift limit.
Humane Society President Wayne Pacelle called Richards' criticism a "McCarthyistic attack" to deflect attention away from the controversy and said his comments showed that he failed to understand why people were so upset about the mountain lion hunt.
"We're not saying it wasn't legal. We're saying he abrogated his responsibility to lead the state wildlife protection commission in a way that reflects the will of Californians," Pacelle said.