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March 02, 2012

Lawmakers and Others Join Call for California Commissioner to Step Down

Controversy sometimes brings out the best or the worst in people, and it’s definitely brought out the worst in Daniel Richards―the defiant, intemperate, and out-of-touch president of the California Fish and Game Commission. He’s been widely condemned―including by two of the state’s largest newspapers―for shooting a mountain lion and then acting as a braggart by submitting the photo to a prominent California hunting journal, as a sort of digital trophy of his escapade.

But Richards compounded his public relations problems with a mocking letter to state lawmakers who asked him to resign, and in public comments on KFI-AM in Los Angeles―where he took swings at The HSUS, the lieutenant governor, and the president of the California Senate. 

Mountain lion
iStockphoto

If there was any doubt about Richards’ inability to lead the commission after the lion controversy came to light, those doubts have vanished. He’s not fit to serve. The Department of Fish and Game is at a pivotal time, as it must continue to make the transition away from an agency that primarily serves hunters, to a one that broadly serves the people of California and all of those interested in wildlife. Richards is an old-school hook-and-bullet man, appointed to the Commission by former Gov. Schwarzenegger because he was an avid hunter. Richards had no credentials for the wildlife post, except that he was a member of a bunch of different hunting groups.

It’s been a little more than week now since HSUS’s California state director, Jennifer Fearing, came upon the infamous photo in Western Outdoor News of a grinning Richards bear-hugging a mountain lion he’d shot out of a tree after a guided hound hunt in northern Idaho. That photo has now been reproduced all over the nation, including in today’s Wall Street Journal.

I was involved with both California ballot measures in the 1990s that resulted in voters rejecting mountain lion hunting, so I immediately recognized this photo as an affront to the people of the state. There is no other hunting-related policy issue that has been the subject of two statewide public votes. Even if Richards didn’t agree with the voters’ judgment to ban lion hunting, and even if lion hunting is in fact legal in Idaho, as president of the Commission he should have exhibited some respect to the electorate he serves and restrained himself from killing a lion for the heck of it. But apparently his selfish desire to shoot a big cat―which he said was a lifelong ambition―trumped his sense of public responsibility. 

There’s more to serving in a prominent statewide position than mere obedience to the law. We expect more of our public officials than that least common denominator approach. For him to shoot a lion while representing a state that bans the activity is akin to the head of a statewide animal welfare commission going to Puerto Rico and participating in a cockfight, and then saying it was all well and good because the practice is legal there.

But it turns out that Richards’ whole gambit to Idaho may not have been quite right with the law. As a state appointee, there are ethics rules he’s obligated to honor. One rule is not to accept any gift exceeding $420. And as it turns out, the hunting guide in Idaho who ran the ranch where the lion was shot told a reporter that he gave the hunt to Richards―which, at the ranch, is listed to value $6,800, well more than the maximum gift value. According to a report from Paul Rogers in the San Jose Mercury News, Richards didn’t reimburse the guide for the hunt within 30 days, and that may be a violation of ethics rules.

The NRA and U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance are bellyaching that Richards is being unfairly targeted for a legal hunt. But these are the same groups that demanded the resignation of Richard’s predecessor, Judd Hanna, simply because he took a serious look at the effect of toxic lead shot on wildlife. So they worked to pressure Hanna to resign for working to help wildlife, but they want to protect this guy who revels in killing a type of animal off-limits to hunters in the state he serves.

If Richards doesn’t resign, the Assembly and Senate should advance resolutions to oust him. He’s not the leader on wildlife issues that California deserves.

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