Earlier this week, the invitation on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website read: "Yolo Wildlife Area, Davis – We are offering a one day clinic on hunting predators in California. Space is limited. Cost: $45 for the class."
On Friday, amid howls of protest, the clinic was canceled.
"This probably isn't the best place for a clinic like that," said department spokesman Mike Taugher.
The incident is part of brewing conflict over the department's predator management, one that on Friday surfaced in the Legislature when Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, introduced a bill that would give the department more nonlethal options in responding to conflicts between people and mountain lions.
The catalyst for that bill was the fatal shooting of two lion cubs by department staff in Half Moon Bay on Dec. 1. Necropsies show the cubs weighed 13 to 14 pounds each. Wildlife advocates were outraged.
"Their attitude and ethos toward predators is out of step with the scientific underpinnings of predator management and public values," said Jennifer Fearing, California director of the Humane Society of the United States.
"That's not the case at all," Taugher said. "People have different views on these things, and we sort of live in the middle where we are trying to find a balance."
He said the department is taking a fresh look at two key aspects of its predator management. One is a review of its contractual relationship with USDA Wildlife Services, the federal agency it pays to trap and shoot predators that attack livestock and inflict other damage. The other is a comprehensive review of how the department responds to conflicts between humans and mountain lions.
"That could lead to new guidelines and policies on how we deal with mountain lions in California," Taugher said. "That's a big deal."
The conflicts have emerged during a time of transition for the department. On Jan. 1, the department changed its name from "Fish and Game" to "Fish and Wildlife," as mandated by a bill signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year calling for a more comprehensive, ecological approach to wildlife management.
"Promoting predator-hunting clinics contradicts that legislation, and that direction," said Camilla Fox, executive director of Project Coyote, a Bay Area nonprofit group.
Hunter education classes are not new for the department, but it has never before offered one targeting predators. The idea to do so now sprang from informal surveys of hunters at other clinics asking about additional instruction they would like to have. "There was interest among some hunters in this type of a clinic," said Taugher.
In recent years, a flurry of scientific papers has pointed out the valuable role predators play in keeping ecosystems healthy, including preying on jack rabbits and rodents that can carry disease.
"I don't think it's a wise idea. We're bigger than that," said Judd Hanna, a former member of the California Fish and Game Commission and a rancher in Tehama County.
"Predators tend to balance out all on their own," Hanna added. "I see coyotes come and go. I see rodents come and go. I see mountain lions come and go. It's a cycle."
The department had scheduled two classes: one in Riverside County next month and the other at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area in March. The goal is to teach hunters "proper types of firearms and ammunition predator hunting strategies and habitats of predators," according to the department website. Other topics include predator-calling, decoys, blinds and ethics.
The department plans to go ahead with the Riverside class. But on Friday, Taugher said the department had canceled the one at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, a preserve next to Davis, one of the most conservation-minded communities in the state.
Last year, the Davis City Council severed ties with USDA Wildlife Services after a federal trapper killed five coyotes – four of them puppies – on a golf course near a buffer for wildlife. This month, the City Council voted to adopt its own Coyote Management and Coexistence Plan, emphasizing nonlethal management.
"The idea of a predator hunting class in Davis goes well past tone-deaf," said Fearing, the Humane Society state director.
In an email to Fearing on Friday, Charlton Bonham, director of the Fish and Wildlife department, explained the department's decision. "We concluded such a clinic would be inappropriate given interest by that city in emphasizing coexistence with coyotes," he said.
Bonham also said no other predator hunting clinics are planned. "These issues are by their very nature difficult and often evoke strong emotions," he said. "The department is committed to constant improvement in this area."
Fearing applauded the decision to cancel the class, but said more sweeping changes are needed to protect coyotes, mountain lions and other carnivores in California.
"We will continue to press for an approach to predator management in California that is ecologically appropriate, humane and effective at reducing conflicts with humans," she wrote in an email.