‘An Environmentalist With a Gun’: Inside Steven Rinella’s Hunting Empire


“I still have that HATE shirt in my closet to remind me,” Rinella told me. We were sitting in his backyard di lui at the home he shares with his wife di lui, Katie, and their three young children in an upscale neighborhood in Bozeman. The leaves on the aspen tree out front had gone riotously golden, and the branches were festooned with dozens of antlers and animal bones strung up like Christmas-tree ornaments. Rinella is away from home a lot, following the hunting seasons like some kind of migratory superpredator, often with cinematographers in tow. In November, he hunted black-tailed deer and caught shrimp in Alaska and then white-tailed deer in Nebraska; in December, he shot ducks in Louisiana. January means hunting Coues deer in Mexico; February, the piglike javelina in Arizona; March, Osceola turkeys and cobia fishing in Florida; April, wild turkeys in Mexico, Wisconsin and Michigan; May, black bears back in Montana. Summer means bowfishing and spearfishing in Florida and Louisiana; fall means moose in Alaska and elk in Colorado. His fans of him are constantly stopping him in airports.

After graduating from high school, Rinella was set on becoming a commercial fur trapper, selling muskrat, beaver, mink, fox and raccoon pelts to be made into fur coats and hats. But things didn’t go as planned. Fur prices were falling. He supplemented his meager earnings by cutting and selling firewood and picking up graveyard shifts at a nearby green-bean-processing plant. Later, he’d get an MFA in creative-nonfiction writing at the University of Montana and realize that his experiences di lui as a scrappy, working-class kid who wanted nothing more than to be outside gave him a unique voice as a storyteller, on the page and eventually on the screen. But in those years after high school, he was still a fledgling fur trapper going into debt. One day one of his older brothers di lui – both of them lifelong hunters who were by 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 conservation awakening,” Rinella told me.

Most people read Leopold as belonging to the pantheon of American environmental writers, with the likes of Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson and John Muir. Rinella reads Leopold as a fellow hunter. Leopold, his wife and his children di lui all hunted, often with bows, and he derived many insights about the natural world and humans’ place in it from hunting. “A Sand County Almanac” was published in 1949 and has since sold more than 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 pups in Arizona’s Apache National Forest when he was a 22-year-old forest ranger, a standard practice at a time when the government was busy trying to eradicate wolves and other predators. Leopold watched the wolf’s eyes go dead. “I was young then and full of trigger-itch,” he writes. “I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf, nor the mountain agreed with such a view. ” Watching 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 ignoble past when it came to the slaughter of its wild animals. “I had no idea that we’d killed all the deer, and the turkeys and the ducks and then brought them back,” he told me. “Without knowing all that, I never thought to apply any kind of reverence toward wildlife; it was just there. “

When European settlers arrived in the New World, they quickly set about killing animals with a similarly prodigal mind-set. They hunted for food, fur, hides and, in the case of buffalo, as part of a genocidal strategy to starve Indigenous inhabitants and claim the land. Before white people landed, some 50 million bison roamed North America; by 1889, there were just 1,000 left.

The precolonial population of white-tailed deer crashed from an estimated 62 million animals to as few as 300,000. The Canada goose disappeared almost entirely. Wealthy hunters noticed the decline in species they were keen to hunt and, in the interest of maintaining free-roaming prey, set about trying 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 restricted to 100 men who had each shot at least three different megafaunas from a list that included bear, bison, caribou, cougar and moose. These elite sportsmen were instrumental in passing the nation’s first wildlife-protection laws, starting with the Lacey Act of 1900, which made the interstate trafficking of illegally harvested wildlife a federal crime.

As president, Roosevelt went on to designate 230 million acres as public land, creating 150 national forests, 51 bird sanctuaries and five national parks, in no small part because of his love of hunting. In 1937, Franklin D. Roosevelt, influenced by the earlier conservation work of his cousin di lui, whom he admired, signed the Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act, also known as the Pittman-Robertson Act, a federal tax on guns and ammunition. A similar federal tax was later placed on fishing equipment. For more than 80 years, that money has made up the bulk of states’ conservation budgets, supplemented by sales of hunting and fishing licenses. Spend any amount of time among hunters, or even state wildlife biologists, and you’ll inevitably hear the claim that “hunting is conservation.”

Tony Wasley, president of the Association of Fish & Wildlife Agencies and director of the Nevada Department of Wildlife, explained to me what that actually means. “We have to take care of 895 commonly occurring species in Nevada based on funding that comes from people’s desire to recreationally pursue 8 percent of those species,” he said. His email signature of him: “Support Nevada’s Wildlife … Buy a Hunting and Fishing License.”