‘A conservationist with a gun’: Inside Steven Rinella’s hunting empire

“I always have that HATE shirt in my closet to remind me of that,” Rinella told me. We were sitting in his backyard at the home he shares with his wife, Katie, and their three young children in an upscale Bozeman neighborhood. The leaves of the aspen in front had turned madly golden, and the branches were adorned with dozens of antlers and animal bones hanging like Christmas tree ornaments. Rinella is often far from home, following the hunting seasons like a kind of migrating superpredator, often accompanied by filmmakers. In November, he hunted white-tailed deer and caught shrimp in Alaska and then white-tailed deer in Nebraska; in December, he shot ducks in Louisiana. January means hunting the Coues deer in Mexico; February, the pig-shaped javelin in Arizona; Mars, Osceola turkeys and cobia fishing in Florida; April, wild turkeys in Mexico, Wisconsin and Michigan; May, black bears back in Montana. Summer is synonymous with bow fishing and spearfishing in Florida and Louisiana; fall means moose in Alaska and elk in Colorado. Her fans constantly stop her at airports.

After graduating from high school, Rinella decided to become a commercial fur trapper, selling muskrat, beaver, mink, fox, and raccoon pelts to make fur coats and hats. But things didn’t go as planned. Fur prices were falling. He supplemented his meager income by cutting and selling firewood and taking cemetery shifts at a nearby green bean processing plant. He would later earn a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and realize that his experiences as a rambling working-class kid who wanted nothing more than to be outside him gave a unique voice as a storyteller, on the page and eventually on screen. But in those years after high school, he was still a young fur trapper in debt. One day, one of his older brothers—both longtime hunters then studying wildlife biology in college—gave him a dog-eared paperback copy of Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac.” “That was the beginning of my awakening to conservation,” Rinella told me.

Most people read Leopold as part of the pantheon of American environmentalist writers, along with the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson and John Muir. Rinella reads Leopold like a hunting companion. Leopold, his wife, and children all hunted, often with bows, and he derived many ideas about the natural world and humans’ place in it through hunting. “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949 and has since sold over two million copies and been translated into 14 languages. In one of the book’s essays, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” Leopold describes shooting a wolf and her cubs in Arizona’s Apache National Forest when he was a 22-year-old ranger, a common practice in a time when the government was busy. trying to eradicate wolves and other predators. Leopold watched the wolf’s eyes fade. “I was young then and full of itchiness,” he wrote. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunter heaven. But after seeing the green light die, I felt that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view. Seeing the wolf die certainly didn’t stop Leopold from hunting. And reading about it didn’t stop Rinella from hunting either, but it did force him to grapple with America’s dastardly past when it comes to slaughtering its wild animals. “I had no idea that we killed all the deer, turkeys and ducks and then brought them back,” he told me. “Without knowing all this, I never thought of applying any reverence to wildlife; it was right there.

When European settlers arrived in the New World, they quickly took to killing animals with an equally lavish mindset. They hunted for food, fur, hides and, in the case of bison, as part of a genocidal strategy to starve the native inhabitants and claim land. Before the arrival of the whites, some 50 million bison roamed North America; by 1889 there were only 1,000 left.

The pre-colonial population of white-tailed deer declined from around 62 million animals to as few as 300,000. The Canada goose has almost entirely disappeared. Wealthy hunters noticed the decline of the species they wanted to hunt and, in the interest of keeping prey free, began to try to protect these animals and their landscapes. In 1887, more than a decade before Theodore Roosevelt became president, he founded the Boone & Crockett Club, America’s first conservation organization. Membership was limited to 100 men who had each shot at least three different megafauna from a list including bear, bison, caribou, cougar and moose. These elite sportsmen were instrumental in passing the nation’s first wildlife protection laws, beginning with the Lacey Act of 1900, which made interstate trafficking in illegally harvested wildlife a federal crime.

As president, Roosevelt then designated 230 million acres as public land, creating 150 national forests, 51 bird sanctuaries, and five national parks, largely because of his love of hunting. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, influenced by the earlier conservation work of his cousin, whom he admired, signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, a federal gun tax fire and ammunition. A similar federal tax was later imposed on fishing tackle. For more than 80 years, this money made up the bulk of state conservation budgets, supplemented by the sale of hunting and fishing licenses. Spend time among hunters, or even state wildlife biologists, and you’ll inevitably hear the statement that “hunting equals conservation.”

Tony Wasley, president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, explained to me what this actually means. “We need to care for 895 common species in Nevada based on funding from people’s desire to pursue recreationally 8% of these species,” he said. His email signature: “Support Nevada wildlife…Buy a hunting and fishing license.”

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