SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The photo shows a hunter with a proud smile holding a slain, man-sized mountain lion in a snowy wilderness — a memento from a successful Idaho hunting trip that has become a political nightmare for the hunter. He is the state Fish and Game Commission president in California, where cougar killing is banned.
Since the photograph surfaced in a California hunting journal last month, Dan Richards has faced growing criticism, and animal rights activists and 40 California Democratic Assembly members have demanded that he resign from his appointed position. And on Thursday, he was hit with a complaint to the state's ethics commission that the lion hunt was an illegal freebee.
Defiantly defending himself, Richards has rebuffed calls to step down and has pointed out that he not only killed the cougar in Idaho, where that's legal, he ate what he shot, as good hunters do.
Richards is a Republican commercial real estate developer from San Bernardino County who unsuccessfully ran for governor during the 2003 recall election, garnering 383 votes. Richards was appointed in 2008 by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
He defended his hunt in a letter to a lawmaker who had demanded his resignation.
"While I respect our Fish and Game rules and regulations, my 100-percent legal activity out of California, or anyone else's for that matter, is none of your business," Richards wrote.
In a radio interview on a conservative talk show in Los Angeles, Richards called his critics "enviro-terrorists" and has said there was "ZERO" chance he would step down from the five-member commission, which sets hunting and fishing regulations in the state.
Animal rights activists held their noses but not their tongues when Richards, a member of the National Rifle Association, said that he found that puma "doesn't taste like chicken," and likened it to pork loin.
On Thursday, the charges got more serious for Richards when a former California Democratic Party official, Kathy Bowler, filed a formal ethics complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission.
Citing a San Jose Mercury News story, the complaint alleges Richards accepted a $6,800 gift from the Flying B Ranch because he didn't pay the full fee normally charged to guests who go on guided mountain lion hunts. Under California law, officials can't accept gifts of more than $420 a year.
Richards did not return calls and an email from The Associated Press on Friday seeking comment.
Joseph Peterson, manager of the Flying B Ranch in Idaho where the hunting occurred, told the AP that he asked Richards to shoot the mountain lion as part of an effort to control the population there. He said Richards paid for a two-day bird hunting trip at $3,200— not for the ranch's mountain lion package, which costs $6,800.
'It was going to die anyway'
Peterson denied giving Richards a gift by not charging him for the ranch's mountain lion package too.
"It was going to die anyway. I was going to kill it. The purpose of shooting it was to reduce the population," Peterson said. "I don't do much for gifts. I'm here to turn a profit and keep people employed."
Hunting cougars, which are also called pumas or mountain lions, was banned in California in the early 1990s, though it's legal in Idaho and many other states.
The mountain lion population in the state is stable with an estimated 4,000-to-6,000 of the creatures. The big cats can only be killed by special depredation permit or to preserve public safety or to protect endangered bighorn sheep.
After the photo surfaced, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom — whose father is a former judge and past president of the Mountain Lion Preservation Foundation — questioned the wisdom of having a hunter as the head of an agency responsible for natural resources.
"Is it appropriate for the chair of the commission that oversees the management and governance of our wildlife and our fisheries and natural resources to go to another state to do something he can't do in this state?," Newsom said in a television interview.
The AP was not able to obtain permission to publish the photograph.
California has twice voted down statewide efforts to reinstate mountain lion hunting — a fact that critics say shows Richards is not suited for his post and out of step with the people.
"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," Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of America, said on his blog.
Some of Richards' Republican colleagues stepped into the fray in his defense.
"Mr. Richards has not broken one law," said state Sen. Tom Harman, R-Huntington Beach, in a statement. "In the state of Idaho, it is perfectly legal to take down a mountain lion. After all, there are lots of states that don't follow California's lead on every issue."
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