Folks who serve on state fish and game commissions usually like to catch fish and hunt game, so in most places it would not raise eyebrows if a commission’s leader were photographed with a big game trophy.
This is yet another story about how California is not like most places.
The cat was big; the story was not. But California’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and others in the state responded by demanding that Richards resign his state post. (Richards is hardly in it for the money. It’s a part-time position that pays $100 per meeting plus expenses; he makes his living as a real estate broker in the San Bernardino area.)
Hunting mountain lions, also known as cougars, is illegal in California - the result of Proposition 117, a 1990 voter initiative. While Richards’ hunt took place in a state where it is legal to kill mountain lions, Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society, said Richards had “thumbed his nose at the people of California” by not respecting California law while in Idaho.
Proposition 117 also prohibits in California the possession of pelts or other trophies from mountain lions killed after 1990, regardless of where they were killed. There is no indication, however, that Richards kept any trophies other than photographs.
Richards has rightly refused to give up his post.
I have serious doubts about the wisdom of California’s ban on hunting mountain lions. As far back as 2001, Harold Danz, author of the book “Cougar!”, noted that the number of mountain lions in the West was “increasing exponentially,” largely as the result of bounties that once rewarded mountain lion kills being replaced with restrictions and bans. While others are skeptical that the California mountain lion population is increasing, there is no doubt that more people are moving to once-rural areas, which has also increased contact between humans and cougars. The hunting ban ensures that mountain lions do not see humans as a threat, making them less likely to avoid populated areas.
California is far from the only state with cougar issues. Last week, USA Today reported on a study that shows the big cats are being sighted much more often across the Midwest, and as far east as Connecticut, as they migrate from western states where populations are growing. Most of these eastbound cougars seem to be originating in the Black Hills in South Dakota. California’s cats are more or less hemmed in by the Sierra Nevada and the deserts to the east.
In 2004, 14 California mountain lions posed such a threat to public safety that they had to be killed, according to the state’s Department of Fish and Game. California also maintains a list of verified mountain lion attacks going back to 1890. The state logged no attacks between 1909 and 1986, and no fatalities between 1909 (which had two deaths that were attributed to rabies) and 1994, after the hunting ban took effect. There were two nonfatal attacks on small children in 1986, and additional nonfatal attacks on children in 1992 and 1993. Since 1994 the California cougars have gone after bigger game. A 40-year-old woman died in April 1994; a 56-year-old woman was killed eight months later. A 35-year-old man was killed in 2004. There have been six verified nonfatal attacks on adults in California since 1994, but none since 2007.
Proposition 117 is an example of the poorly designed legislation that can result when an urban-dwelling majority decides to legislate on matters affecting communities they know little about.
Besides banning cougar hunting, Proposition 117 effectively creates a ban against “importing” mountain lion remains from other states through its ban on trophies. My guess is that pretty much any federal court would rule that this portion of the law violates the Constitution’s commerce clause, which reserves for the Congress the right “to regulate Commerce…among the several States.”
However, the ban may never make it to court, for two reasons. First, it is seldom enforced. So long as hunters don’t mount trophies above their front doors, the state has little way to know who might secretly harbor illegal stuffed mountain lions. Second, possession of mountain lion parts is only a misdemeanor. The cost of pursuing a court challenge to the law would be greater than simply paying the fine.
So Proposition 117 will probably stand. As far as anyone can tell, Richards did nothing illegal, but California’s urban-oriented law gives the anti-hunting crowd a cudgel with which to abuse people who devote their time to managing fish and game because they care, in the traditional fishing and hunting sense, about fish and game.