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A Fish and Game faux pas

In killing a cougar in Idaho, panel's leader forgot whom he represents

March 08, 2012|GEORGE SKELTON
  • Commission president Dan Richards, who is under fire for killing a mountain lion during an Idaho hunting trip, at the California Fish and Game Commission meeting held at Mission Inn in Riverside.
Commission president Dan Richards, who is under fire for killing a mountain… (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles…)

SACRAMENTO — If it had not been for the graphic picture, few people would have known or cared.

Or if he had merely framed the photo and hung it in his own den, showing it off as a low-profile trophy to close family and friends, he could have escaped the lion's den. Pun intended.

Instead, Dan Richards proudly distributed to the world the picture of him holding up a magnificent man-size mountain lion he had just shot. He's holding the corpse as if he's hugging it and he's sporting a gleeful grin.

And he clearly has no clue or concern about how many people this will repulse.

The root problem here is Richards' failure to adhere to a rule we're all taught at a young age -- or should be -- and that is to remember who you are and whom you represent.

And in Richards' case, he is not merely an avid hunter who represents a declining segment of the California population, which tends to patronize Western Outdoor News, the niche website where he sent the stunning snapshot.

The Upland real estate developer represents the entire state of California as president of the powerful state Fish and Game Commission.

His constituency consists not only of the 268,000 Californians who last year bought hunting licenses, down from 762,000 in 1970, despite the state's population nearly doubling in that span. Richards also represents the 37.5 million non-hunting Californians, many of whom barely tolerate the killing of animals for sport.

The larger constituency merely expects the Fish and Game Commission to be the guardian of California wildlife. And people get nervous when they see the commission president flaunting the out-of-state kill of an imposing creature that would be protected in California.

What Richards did was hand over more ammunition to the anti-hunting zealots.

Mountain lion hunting basically has been banned in California since 1972. Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the bill. Voters narrowly passed a ballot initiative in 1990 permanently protecting the big cats.

Richards shot his lion at a private hunting spread in Idaho. There it's legal to croak a cougar.

A poke in the eye to all Californians, one protester complained at a Fish and Game Commission meeting in Riverside on Wednesday.

But that man was greatly outnumbered by a long parade of hunters who defended Richards' right to kill the cat, declaring ad nauseam, that just because it's illegal here doesn't make it illegal across the border.

That's right. And neither is it necessarily illegal to act stupid.

Richards not only stepped in it by boasting of his kill with pictures, he touched nerves in Sacramento when he fired off an impolitic missive to a state assemblyman, Ben Hueso (D-Logan Heights), who had written him a letter signed by 40 lawmakers demanding the commissioner's resignation.

"My 100% legal activity out of California, or anyone else's for that matter, is none of your business," Richards wrote the legislator. Later in a radio interview, he called his critics "enviro-terrorists" and insisted there was "zero" chance he'd step down.

Hueso introduced a resolution that would force Richards' ouster from the commission if it passed each house with a majority vote.

That's also stupid. The Legislature has much more important things on its plate than a cougar kill.

Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) acknowledged that fact at a news conference last week.

"This guy has acted like a jackass," Steinberg said of Richards. "When you hold a high public position, you have a responsibility to act with decorum....

"On the other hand, we have a lot of work to do here.... I want the Senate to keep its focus on the people's priorities and not get distracted.... I don't want to spend a lot of time and effort on this guy."

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom jumped in early urging Richards to resign. But unlike the Legislature, a lieutenant governor has little to do. And he had a personal reason.

Newsom's father, William Newsom, helped found the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation and fought for the initiative that protected the animal. Gavin Newsom holds fond memories of trekking with his father through the wilderness south of Monterey in search of cougars.

"We'd shoot them with tranquilizer guns, tag and collar them," the lieutenant governor recalls. As Richards did, the Newsoms hunted with dogs that treed the cats.

"It's a remarkable thing to see a 100-pound majestic creature more scared of dogs half their size than anything else."

But Tuesday, Newsom was backing off from his resignation demand.

"Good people can disagree," he told me. "For those who feel I overstepped my bounds, I'm respectful of that view."

Tolerance has been a scarce commodity in this episode.

Hunters have hunkered in their familiar defensive crouch, scatter-shooting at "enviro-terrorists." Humane Society types have been pushing their anti-hunting agenda.

Hunting is not going away, nor should it. I say that as someone who grew up hunting and shot birds and mammals -- never cats -- for much of my life. You'll not read any anti-hunting harangue here.

I did, however, greatly enjoy outdoor writer Tom Stienstra's column in the San Francisco Chronicle last Sunday. He wrote about stalking a Sierra bighorn sheep "with massive horns.... I could hear my heart beating in the seconds before I shot him. Got him."

"Like a lot of big game hunters," the writer continued, "I had traded in my rifle for a camera on that trip.... It's a catch-and-release hunt with a trophy photo, not a head for your wall.... You get an experience that feels like the marrow of life."

It's an approach that Richards -- any Fish and Game commissioner -- should think about. Next time shoot the lion with a camera while it's alive.

--

george.skelton@latimes.com

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