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Commissioner blames NRA for his ouster

Times Staff Writer

The wildlife commissioner forced to resign this month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Monday that he believes he was fired because he supports banning lead bullets in some areas of the state to protect the rare California condor from lead poisoning or death.

R. Judd Hanna was asked to resign from the state Fish and Game Commission one day after 34 Republican legislators wrote Schwarzenegger, requesting Hanna’s ouster because of their “grave concern” that his stance against lead bullets made him a biased member of a commission that is taking up the issue.

Hanna, an avid hunter, chided the National Rifle Association and others who oppose a ban, saying they are ignoring scientific evidence that lead poisoning from bullets is killing and sickening one of the most endangered birds in North America. He believes the NRA pushed for his removal.

“It seems to me that the hunters are not living up to their mantra that hunters are the first line of conservation. They need to be proactive,” said Hanna, 66, a retired real estate developer, former Navy commander, former NRA member and lifelong Republican who said he voted twice for Schwarzenegger.

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“This is not about me. It’s about the condor. It’s about the NRA hijacking the system,” he said.

The NRA and some hunting groups oppose a ban, saying that the science linking lead bullets to condor casualties is inconclusive, that nonlead bullets cost too much for many hunters, and that government is trying to regulate hunter behavior.

Hanna’s departure seven months after his appointment has thrown the lead bullet debate in Sacramento into disarray. Environmentalists said they see the removal as an omen that the governor will veto a bill passed by the Legislature Sept. 5 to ban use of the bullets in condor country.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear said Hanna, a resident of Mill Creek near Lassen Volcanic National Park, was removed so a Southern California member could be added to the commission, which now has three members from Northern and Central California and one from Carpinteria.

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“This had to do with geographic diversity,” McLear said. “I think people are reading too much into it.” He said Schwarzenegger has not made up his mind on the bill.

The NRA never contacted the governor’s office about ousting Hanna, McLear said, adding that the gun lobby has criticized the governor on some other gun-related measures.

The NRA on Monday denied playing a role in Hanna’s departure.

“If we were to call for the ouster of anyone, we would let people know, and we would be open,” said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam

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Only 75 condors remain in the wild in California, despite a $40-million, 25-year restoration effort by government and private groups to save the species from extinction.

A number of leading scientists believe bullets caused the lead poisoning blamed in the deaths of as many as 12 condors in the state and the sickening of 16 more.

Condors feed largely on animal carcasses, and researchers believe the birds can swallow fragments of lead bullets lodged in carcasses left behind by hunters. In July, 44 scientists and other experts from around the world issued a joint statement calling the science strong enough to merit a ban on lead bullets in condor country.

The evidence that lead bullets are harming condors “is pretty darned close to overwhelming,” said Donald Smith, a professor of environmental toxicology at UC Santa Cruz and co-author of one of the studies, which linked the isotope ratios, or chemical signatures, of lead bullets to those in poisoned condors.

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David W. Winkler, professor and curator of birds at Cornell University, wrote in an e-mail to The Times: “Bottom line: Everyone I know who works closely with the bird is clear that lead is an important, ongoing threat to the condors. It is hard to imagine a recovering wild condor population in CA without a ban on lead ammunition.”

For months, both the Legislature and the Fish and Game Commission have studied prohibiting lead bullets in the condors’ range, coastal areas of Central and Southern California.

Five days after the bill banning bullets -- sponsored by Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) -- passed the Legislature, 34 GOP lawmakers wrote the governor to request Hanna’s removal.

They complained that Hanna had circulated a packet of information to his fellow commissioners -- totaling more than 160 pages -- with handwritten notations that they believed showed his bias.

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“In short,” stated the Sept. 10 letter, “there is grave concern that Mr. Hanna is not being impartial relative to his participation in the commission’s decision-making.”

It asked that Hanna be replaced by “an unbiased representative from Southern California.”

Hanna said state Resources Secretary Mike Chrisman asked for his resignation one day later.

Hanna’s packet, which The Times obtained from the commission through the state Public Records Act, contained four articles from respected scientific journals, news clippings, material from the Audubon Society and other groups, and 40 pages of lead bullet survey results from the Arizona Department of Fish and Game.

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The material is heavily underlined, highlighted and notated, “much like I did when I was in college,” Hanna said.

State Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), who spearheaded the GOP legislators’ letter to Schwarzenegger, did not return telephone calls, nor did two other legislators who signed the letter.

Commission President Richard B. Rogers said the panel remains committed to taking action this fall. He said the panel opposes the Nava bill because members think they should be setting the policy, not the Legislature.

Rogers believes Hanna was removed because he was too overt in his opinions in meetings and in written material he gave other commissioners. “His crime, if it was one, was one of being passionate about the issue and naïve about the appropriate process,” he said.

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Rogers said Hanna should not have distributed reports with handwritten notations.

Deputy Atty. Gen. William Cunningham, the commission’s counsel, said Hanna did nothing illegal by circulating the material or notating it.

He said he encourages commissioners to make background material public, including notations.

“To have the public be able to see a commissioner’s written thoughts,” he said, “I would suggest is a good idea.”

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deborah.schoch@latimes.com


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