Talking about conservation and wildlife with Meateater’s Steven Rinella

Earlier this summer, Andrew Clyde (R-GA) introduced a bill to Congress that, if passed, could gain support for gut preservation. Called the RETURN Act (repeal excise tax on inalienable rights now) our constitutional rights, it would eliminate the excise tax on firearms and ammunition that directly supports conservation funding. In 2021 alone, that tax collected $1 billion. It is controversial even among the GOP, though it has the support of many lawmakers. Reading about the bill reminded us of this interview with America’s hunter and articulate conservationist, Steven Rinella. We decided to put it back on the website for new readers to see. – Ed.

The Meateater TV show on Netflix and podcast of the same name is about as simple and aptly named as it gets. Hosted by Steve Rinella, Meatates is primarily about hunting. But it’s not just about hunting, and if you’ve never seen it show or listened to the podcast, it’s probably not something you’d expect from a hunting program. It could just as easily be called “The Conservationist.” Rinella is no trophy hunter. He goes hunting for food. He cares deeply about wildlife, their habitats, and our relationship as humans to not only the land we live on, but also the food we eat.

Through both his books and his digital media, Rinella has built a following among people—like myself—who have never hunted a day in their lives, but who care deeply about public lands, ecological protection, and healthy native wildlife populations. Vegans watch his show. Anti-gun advocates listen to his podcast. It helps that Rinella is thoughtful, articulate, and deeply appreciative of the natural world around him. He’ll sit on a hillside for an entire episode scanning for elk herds with binoculars, see none, but manage to share his subdued reverence for the wild places the elk call home. A philosophical, deeply ethical hunter. But his show is also fun, funny and full of really good food.

We caught up with Rinella by phone recently to talk about why Meateater is so popular with non-hunters and what the non-hunting world can learn from hunters about conservation.

Rinella’s programs show that hunting is very much about learning the intricacies of an environment and blending into it as best as possible. Photo: Courtesy of The Meateater.

ADVENTURE JOURNAL: How many people come up to you when you meet them and say they don’t hunt but they love what you do? Or maybe they’re even disgusted by hunting in general, but they enjoy watching your show or listening to your podcast.
RINELLA: You know, it’s becoming more and more common. I think a lot of it has to do with being on Netflix. They push our show out to an amazingly large audience. People who might be interested in the culinary space or people who might be interested in adventure travel are offered the show. And also the conversations. We have pretty lively conversations around sustainability issues and wildlife conservation, wildlife policy, it’s a deep, deep subject.

I think a lot of people who are aware of wildlife will come in and check out the show on the internet. They’re interested in the politics of food, and they’re interested in the politics of wildlife, and end up looking in to see what we’re doing.

Do you understand that this is a burgeoning cultural moment for “hook and bullet”? That there is perhaps a curiosity from parts of the outdoor culture that were not previously attracted? Or has Meateater been a rather unique kind of voice in this space?
There is a market for people who want to have really in-depth conversations about hunting and fishing that aren’t just guys driving around in a truck drinking beer. Which is a common misconception people have. Because of the expectations that people have and the stereotypes that people have about outdoorsmen, our program ends up being somewhat surprising.

There is also a reckoning in using natural resources that it comes with enormous responsibility. People in this country are increasingly having bigger conversations: “We need to take care of the natural world.” Not that people haven’t been talking about this for decades, obviously, it really started with Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, etc. – it’s an old conversation. I think there is an increasing number of people who are willing to talk about it [natural resource use] and that resonates with people saying, “Man, I’m really, really attracted to the idea of ​​going out and hunting my own food. But I’m not naive enough to think that this doesn’t come with some serious responsibility, and that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about this.” And I think that the people who feel the real desire to be involved and want to have an interactive relationship with the natural world, they also have a sense that it’s a heavy thing that needs to be done right. They want this conversation, they know they have to come find us because we approach it that way.

I’m not sure many non-hunters or non-fishers know about things like the Pittman-Robertson Act or the Dingell-Johnson Act (excise taxes collected at the point of sale on hunting and fishing equipment, respectively, that fund wildlife conservation and habitat restoration programs, among others), and I’ve long wondered why the same kinds of taxes aren’t levied on camping and hiking-oriented gear. What are your thoughts on that divide?
These taxes pump about a billion dollars annually into the state’s wildlife protection. So in this country we have different agencies that administer plans. Federal Land Management Agency, State Land Planning Agencies. Your state agencies, it varies by agency, draw about 60 to 90 percent of their funding from excise taxes, Pittman-Robertson and Dingell-Johnson, and the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, tags, stamps, etc. For some state agencies, funding comes solely from these taxes. There is no funding from the ordinary taxpayer for some of these pools.

This covers enforcement of hunting and fishing laws, disease research, habitat improvement, public access to public waterways and public lands. Hunters and anglers pay the bill. Now again, is it because they donate money? Well, no, it’s because back in the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration we committed to the idea that if hunters wanted to hunt, and at the time, it was the Dark Ages, American wildlife was endangered due to rampant destruction of habitat from unregulated market hunting, so Roosevelt put it to the hunters and anglers, saying that if you’re going to be able to even consider the idea of ​​being a hunter, you’re going to have to pay for it, nobody else is going to pay for it. And then we put that tax system in place.

But when people come up with the idea of ​​a “backpack tax”, where e.g. bird watchers, or downhill skiers, or cross-country skiers, or mountain bikers, or whatever, can start footing the bill for wildlife and conservation [through taxes on gear], it generally seems like that industry has some sort of allergy to that conversation. They’ll tell you, “Oh, we’ve already paid enough taxes.” But when you buy a box of shotguns to go deer hunting, 13 percent of the price goes to wildlife, must go to wildlife.

It is no coincidence that the most popular game species are so well taken care of, because they have a huge advocacy business. You try to mess with moose and you’re going to run into a really serious problem. Because people love their resources, they fall to the floor to protect them.

Do you think that a backpack tax should be included in the law?
I would love to see that happen. I would happily pay five, ten, whatever percent more if I knew everyone else was doing the same and the money was going to go to state wildlife organizations, absolutely. I have no problem with that. I’m not really worried about overuse on behalf of the wilderness. You know, it’s no accident that we have the wildlife resources we have today. It is no coincidence that the most popular game species are so well taken care of, because they have a huge advocacy business. You try to mess with moose and you’re going to run into a really serious problem. Because people love their resources, they fall to the floor to protect them.

Rinella, fishing with an alternative means, on a trip to Guyana. Photo: Courtesy of The Meateater.

While hunting seems to be getting a bit more attention from non-hunting outdoor media – this interview is, I suppose, an example – there is still often a divide between hardcore hunters and hardcore non-hunting outdoorsmen. A shame really, since we were united we would be such a massive force for conservation and public lands advocacy. Can we close that gap?
I call it the track tension. It is very real. However, the burden is not only on non-hunters. I’m not going to come and say as a hunter “It’s all their fault.” I think it would be really smart for hunters and anglers to learn their history. In the European model of hunting and fishing, wildlife was linked to privilege and property. When we started USA, we had to deal with this issue. Through the Declaration of Independence, the things that were the rights of the sovereign—fish and game—were now the rights of the people. It does not say that fish and wildlife [and public lands] is the property of those who purchase hunting and fishing licenses. It is the property of the American people. I think it would be wise for hunters and anglers to understand exactly what that means – that it is something they have access to because it is owned by all of us. As we shape our decisions about how to treat, manage, handle and exploit fish and wildlife, to understand that this is something that is governed by the collective, we.

Non-hunters should also understand the story here. Market hunters almost drove the buffalo to extinction. People who were shooters who, in an unregulated manner, without any oversight whatsoever, killed American wildlife to sell to the great metropolis; shot all the ducks, shot all the buffalo, shot all the deer, sold it. It was hunters who finally got the extremely fixed system in place [of wildlife management] as we have today. It is not even a moot point to say that America has the most successful and progressive form of wildlife management in the world. It was built by hunters and anglers. Then again, it’s people opening up and gaining an awareness of not only where we are now, but where we were and how we got to where we are now.

How can what you’re doing with Meateater help with that?
The goal here is to expand conversations around hunting and resources and to ask: Where are hunting and fishing going in America right now? And what are some of the responsibilities we have? What does the future look like? What must we do to ensure the safety of resources and the way of life? I think it will have positive effects. We’re creating a lot of interest among people who didn’t grow up with these things. It is my intention that it will take positive steps to address many of the things that we have talked about here.

Well, you’ve got this non-hunter thinking about what’s at stake when I eat meat. I was actually on a mountain bike ride last night and I almost ran over this little rabbit that just burst out of the bush right in front of me and my first thought was well if I run this thing over I’m going to bring it home and cook it – Rinella would have done that. I mean, I just missed it, but one of these days I’m going to hit one, and it’ll probably be my first hunt. I was thinking about what you would do when that happened.
Well, you have a moral obligation to that animal, but then you could end up getting a ticket for having it in your possession.

It becomes civil disobedience.

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