Majority of California Assembly members call for resignation of wildlife official who killed mountain lion
By Paul Rogers
Posted: 02/24/2012 09:09:12 PM PST
California wildlife official in hot water over mountain lion hunt
The days may be numbered for a top California wildlife official who sparked a controversy by shooting and killing a mountain lion in Idaho.
Escalating a battle between hunters and animal welfare groups — a conflict that could result in major changes to California’s endangered species and hunting policies — 40 Democratic state Assembly members Friday sent a letter to Dan Richards, president of the California Fish and Game Commission, demanding that he resign.
The firestorm began after a hunting newspaper recently published a photo of Richards, a Republican from San Bernardino and outspoken trophy hunter, holding a dead mountain lion he shot at the Flying B Ranch in northern Idaho earlier this year.
Mountain lion hunting in California was first banned by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1972 in five-year increments. It was outlawed permanently when California voters passed Proposition 117 in 1990.
In Idaho, however, hunting mountain lions is legal.
Hunting groups have rallied to Richards’ defense. But critics, led by the Humane Society of the United States, argue that Richards showed bad judgment and mocked the will of California voters.
“Your actions raise serious questions about whether you respect the laws of the people of California and whether you are fit to adequately enforce those laws,” the letter from the Assembly Democrats said.
It closed with an ominous tone: “We hope that you decide to put the people of California and their collective values first and that this unfortunate incident does not continue to distract the work of the Legislature.”
Under state law, any fish and game commissioner can be removed by a simple majority vote in both houses of the state Legislature.
With 40 of the 80 members of the Assembly calling for Richards to resign, his future on the commission appears to be in serious jeopardy. A similar letter is now circulating in the state Senate, where Democrats hold 25 of the 40 seats.
Richards did not return calls seeking comment.
Assemblyman Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, wrote the Assembly letter and organized the signature gathering. His staff said that more than 40 members would have signed, but Hueso decided to stop at 40. There are 52 Democrats in the 80-member Assembly.
“I have received an outpouring of support from my constituents to remove the commissioner from his position,” Hueso said. “This incident has ignited such an uproar in communities across the state, I am concerned that if Commissioner Richards were to remain on the commission, it would compromise the reputation and ability of the California Fish and Game Commission to continue its good work in the future.”
Hueso’s staff said if Richards does not resign, the assemblyman will likely introduce a resolution to force his removal.
The controversy has prompted an outpouring of support for Richards from hunting and fishing groups, many of which see Richards as the most reliable vote for their issues.
“If he would have shot that mountain lion in California, he would have been thumbing his nose at the voters of California,” said Bill Gaines, president of the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, a hunting advocacy group. “We would have called for his resignation.
“But for him to do it legally in another state, a state that bases their mountain lion management on science — and not emotions like we have here in California — and to be condemned for it, we just flat-out disagree with that.”
Some hunting and fishing groups are urging their members to turn out en masse at the next Fish and Game Commission meeting, which will be held March 7 in Riverside.
The stakes are high. The five-member commission not only decides which species to list as endangered, it also sets policies on everything from hunting to California’s new system of “marine protected areas,” which ban fishing in areas off the coast.
If Richards, who was appointed to the five-member commission by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, resigns or is removed from the panel, his replacement would be named by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown. And that’s a move that for the first time could give the commission a majority of members who tend to support the priorities of environmental groups. Currently, the commission is split 2-2, with Commissioner Richard Rogers often casting the swing vote.
Hanging in the balance in the next year or two: issues such as whether to expand the number of black bears that can be killed every year by California hunters, whether to ban lead shot or whether to offer state endangered-species protections to wolves.
If Richards leaves, the vice president of the commission, Mike Sutton, would become president. Sutton is a former national park ranger and biologist who works at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“There’s a lot at stake,” said Jennifer Fearing, state director of the Humane Society of the United States.
Gaines, the hunting advocate, agreed.
“We’re very well aware that this is a key seat, as are the animal rights groups,” he said. “There’s only five votes, so if you get three, you win.”