Out of state, but not out of mind; Californians heed a great cat's last cry as its lifeless body fell from a tree in Idaho and set off a firestorm back home.
For most, the mention of a cat in a tree conjures up a Rockwellesque image of a fireman climbing a ladder to rescue a little boy or girl's beloved kitten.
To a few in a minority fringe, however, a cat in a tree is nothing more than an easy kill. Chased up a tree by hunting hounds, the exhausted cat comes eye-to-eye with the "great white hunter" who pulls the trigger and takes his trophy.
The brave hunter in this story is Dan Richards, a Schwarzenegger appointee and president of the California Fish and Game Commission. The cat was a cougar, a magnificent 3 year old, 115-pound male mountain lion; shot dead by Richards after being treed by hounds on an exclusive private hunting ranch in Idaho.
Killing mountain lions for "sport" is illegal in California. But is it OK for the president of the California Fish and Game Commission to go to Idaho to kill a cat, where it is legal?
The answer to that question could dramatically alter the composition of the California Fish and Game Commission. The Commission is charged with the management and wise use of California's fish, wildlife, land and marine habitat resources -- including protecting mountain lions. If Richards is removed by the state legislature, Governor Jerry Brown gets to appoint his replacement which could give environmentalists a 3 to 2 majority on the Commission.
Richards has stated that he will not resign, and his defenders argue that it's legal to kill mountain lions in Idaho and therefore he did nothing wrong and shouldn't be forced out of his position.
A majority of Californians likely disagree.
As much as Richards and his misguided supporters want it to be, this is not about Republican vs. Democrat; liberal vs. conservative; or hunter vs. environmentalist. This is about the people of the great State of California who long ago moved past such petty posturing and heated rhetoric on this issue and came together as a proud state that was then, and remains now, determined to save our priceless natural heritage before it is lost forever:
"Although our state symbol, the grizzly bear, no longer roams the wild lands of California and the condor no longer soars over our mountains, we still have areas where one remaining symbol of our wilderness heritage, the mountain lion, is free to live." (California Ballot Pamphlet, Argument in Favor of Proposition 117, June 15, 1990)
Mountain lions have not been trophy hunted in California since Governor Ronald Regan signed a bill protecting this elusive animal. That moratorium was twice extended.
Then, in 1988, the California Fish and Game Commission voted to institute a mountain lion hunting season. That set off a statewide effort, the likes of which were never seen before, which led to the qualification of Proposition 117 -- the first to have been placed on the ballot solely with signatures collected by volunteers in California.
In June 1990, voters approved Proposition 117 by a vote of 52.42% to 47.58%. Then in March 1996, Proposition 197, a ballot measure to repeal the mountain lion protection provisions of Proposition 117, was soundly defeated by a vote of 58.12% to 41.88%.
This wasn't the act of some small group of "eco-terrorists" that Richards and his defenders try to blame in a selfishly defiant refusal to resign. This was the voice of "Main Street," the mainstream majority in California who said we don't want to be like Idaho and other states when it comes to canned and staged trophy hunts; California and its citizens are better than that.
This "Argument in Favor of Proposition 117" appeared in the 1990 California Ballot Pamphlet :
"Mountain lion hunting is cruel and unnecessary. A pack of hounds is set on the trail of the big cat until the exhausted lion seeks refuge in a tree. The trophy-hunter (who sometimes is brought in from hundreds of miles away after paying a huge fee to the houndsman) then walks over and blasts the lion off the limb at point-blank range. When nursing mothers are shot, the kittens starve. This is not sport; it is slaughter."
This description of a mountain lion hunt comes from the Flying B Ranch where Richards killed his cat:
"The sound a hound dog makes when running on the scent of a Lion is an experience that cannot be put into words. For those who desire a unique and fun-filled hunting experience, we offer fully guided (2 guides per hunter) Mountain Lion hunts out of our luxurious 14,000 sq. ft. lodge during the months of December through March.
Nothing in the outdoors compares to the superior disdain in the eyes of a Mountain Lion as his gaze catches yours. Every discerning outdoorsman should meet that look, and we are the best in the business at providing you with that opportunity. Using hound dogs, snowmobiles and snowshoes. We guide you into elk and deer wintering grounds in search of a fresh kill or lion track. From here is when the chase begins and we all hope it ends at the tree!"
It's not just the Sierra Club, or democratic legislators like Assemblymember Ben Hueso, State Senator Ted Lieu, and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom who are outraged and demanding Richards' resignation.
600,000 Californians signed the petitions to put Proposition 117 on the ballot in the first place; 2,572,470 Californians voted to pass Proposition 117 and designate mountain lions as a "specially protected species"; and 3,283,679 Californians voted to defeated Proposition 197's attempt to repeal the protection of mountain lions in California.
We Californians are not going to compromise our standards, our ethics, or our values, and we have a right to expect and demand adherence to those same standards and ethics and values by every Californian who serves in public office -- whether elected or appointed.
The killing of this cat by the president of the California Fish and Game Commission is a betrayal of the trust given to him by Californians as a steward of our own state's natural resources and as an ambassador and representative of the ideals and values we hold dear as Californians.
Mr. Richards act is inexcusable, indefensible, and unforgivable. The blood on his hands is a stain on our state.
Now Richards is the one who is trapped up the tree; defiantly inviting a very public, political castration. He deserves what he is about to get -- the cat deserved better.
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