Dan Richards is quickly finding out what many Californians already knew: the mountain lion is the state’s most politicized animal.

If Richards had gone on safari to Africa and potted a leopard, a lion and an antelope or two, no big deal. If he had made his way to Alaska to gun down a grizzly bear, oh well. If his trip to Idaho had been to collect a wolf pelt, there would have been growls from the environmentalists, but little political uproar.

But instead, the president of the state Fish and Game Commission shot a mountain lion on an Idaho game ranch. And worse, he was proud of it.

That was enough to ignite the animal rights groups, who don’t like hunting anyway. And when the greens get involved, Democratic legislators aren’t far behind.

“Your actions have raised serious questions about whether you respect the laws of the people of California and whether you are fit to adequately enforce them,” Assemblyman Ben Hueso of San Diego said in a letter signed by 40 Democratic Assembly members.

Never mind that while mountain lions are a protected species in California, they’re game animals in Idaho and Richards was a legally licensed hunter. That certainly didn’t bother Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who also called for Richards’ scalp.

While the hunt may have been legal, Newsom said in a letter to Richards, “Your actions do not represent the values of the people of California.” Instead, they “make it clear that you cannot continue in any capacity on the Commission.”

If the enviros are on one side, then the gunners will be on the other. Hunting groups across the country have jumped in to support Richards.

“You would have thought someone had trapped, killed and eaten the very last unicorn in the world,” said a story on the website of The Western Outdoor News, where Richards sent the picture of his mountain lion kill.

And when the Democrats get involved, the Legislature’s Republicans won’t be far behind.

“Demanding (Richards’) resignation over something the liberal elite see as distasteful is merely pandering,” GOP state Sen. Tom Harman said in a letter signed by 10 other Republican senators.

The phrase “liberal elite” is the key here, with the mountain lion, even one who’s an Idaho resident, becoming a political symbol for the state’s long-running battle between California’s more conservative inland rural areas and the more liberal – and far more populous — urban communities along the coast.

The state’s changing demographics mean that many of those urban residents no longer have any connection to rural California. They were born in the city, their parents were born in the city and why are these guys in the sticks so anxious to run around in the woods in funny clothes, looking to kill Bambi?

In the 1990 vote on Prop. 117, two-thirds of the residents of San Francisco, where mountain lions haven’t run free in a century, supported the hunting ban. In Shasta County, where ranchers see mountain lions as a threat to their stock, 35 percent backed the ban.

The ban passed, 52 percent to 48 percent. But the fact that 2.3 million voters opposed the ban hasn’t stopped animal rights groups from acting as thought the vote was unanimous, at least among all right-thinking people.

The photo of Richards and his kill “enraged a liberal nation,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Weekly, although the author did note that “killing mountain lions isn’t illegal in Idaho, the blood-red hick state where Richards downed his prey.”

For the state’s hunters, the calls for Richards’ resignation are just another example of the way liberals/urban residents/Democrats attempt to define conservation the way they like it, a definition that absolutely doesn’t include shooting anything, anywhere, anytime.

Richards, an Upland resident, pointed that out in an angry, unapologetic and hotheaded letter to Hueso that probably isn’t going to help him hang on to his $100-a-meeting appointment to the commission.

“I will continue to hunt and fish wherever I please, as I have always done,” he said, “ethically, licensed and proudly associating with true conservationists who daily fund, protect, enjoy and enhance our beautiful resources, while trying not to limit others enjoyment of same.”

While cooler heads could prevail in this fight, that’s probably not the way to bet. There’s not much of a political downside for Democrats, who have the numbers in both the Assembly and the state Senate to oust Richards, who was appointed by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger anyway.

But there’s still that sticky little question of fairness.

No one has suggested that Richards did anything even slightly illegal in Idaho, where he traveled on his own time and his own dime. If California residents have to follow the state’s rules even when they cross the border, does that mean, as Harman suggested in his letter, that “Californians caught gambling in Nevada or driving 85 mph in Texas should be forced to resign their position, too.”?

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.