A year ago, a photo surfaced of Dan Richards, then-president of California's Fish and Game Commission, bear-hugging a dead mountain lion.
Richards had shot the majestic animal protected in California, but legal to be hunted in Idaho out of a tree where the cougar sought refuge after hours of pursuit by a pack of hounds. The photo set off a social and mainstream media firestorm fueled by the outrage expressed by tens of thousands of Californians and many elected officials.
The reaction to the photo came from an instinct most of us share that abhors the practice of killing animals just for trophies. Scientists broadly concur that humans generally don't need to intervene to manage predator populations.
More than 70 years ago, legendary National Park Service biologist Adolph Murie published research showing predators actually strengthen deer and elk herds by culling out the sick and weak. Numerous peer-reviewed studies followed, also affirming the importance of predation to maintain the delicate balance of our ecosystems. Unfortunately, federal and state policies have yet to true up with these findings, and our laws and regulations continue to allow for the liberal killing of important species like bears, coyotes, foxes and bobcats.
The Richards event was the first in a year's worth of controversies here in California that point to a need for a proactive approach to reconsider how we interact with predators:
An investigative series in spring 2012 by The Bee exposed the federal government's lethal predator control programs and its failure to reduce wildlife conflicts with humans and livestock despite the trapping and killing of thousands of California's wild animals every year.
In May 2012, officials killed a mountain lion that was cornered in a highly urban part of Santa Monica when efforts to capture him failed.
The city of Davis severed its ties with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services in July 2012 after residents raised concerns over the killing of five coyotes four of them pups.
In two separate "public safety" incidents one in August in El Dorado County, and one in December in Half Moon Bay mountain lion cubs were killed in situations that could have been controlled by nonlethal means.
In summer 2012, well-known Tahoe bear "Sunny," never known to show aggression or cause conflict with humans, was found shot to death on a West Lake Tahoe beach.
Throughout 2012, California's first gray wolf, dubbed "OR7" by Oregon officials who collared the animal with GPS equipment, meandered throughout Northern California counties, sparking emotions from fear to delight about the possibility of a future wolf population in the state.
The January announcement of a new "predator hunting clinic" by the newly renamed Department of Fish and Wildlife , which referred to proper "trophy care" and featured a photo of a distressed coyote, was met with complaints from citizens groups like the Humane Society.
Despite the pleas of dozens of animal protection and environmental organizations and thousands of Californians, a coyote killing contest was held in Modoc County recently, where teams, including children, competed to win a silver belt buckle as a prize for killing the most coyotes.
And most recently, a front page Los Angeles Times story chronicled the concern of residents and biologists in the vicinity of Joshua Tree National Park where trappers are trapping and killing hundreds of bobcats each year to sell their pelts for fur coats in China and Russia.
California made progress in 2012. Long overdue legislation to end the cruel and unnecessary use of hounds to chase and harass bears and bobcats resulted in a law banning the practice. Montana prohibited the unsporting practice back in 1921.
And while there were some human-wildlife conflicts in California that resulted in happy endings and some efforts are afoot to improve responses for some species, we need a comprehensive review of our approach to predators in the context of their role in the ecosystem.
All Californians would benefit from more scientifically sound, more humane, and importantly for those who deal directly with wildlife conflicts more effective alternatives to indiscriminate trapping, killing and hunting.
Let us lead and not continue to let controversies, conflicts and needless deaths set the agenda.