MeatEater Founder Steven Rinella Addresses R3 Op-Ed

MeatEater Founder Steven Rinella Addresses R3 Op-Ed

I recently caused quite a stir among our audience with an op-ed published to our website. The piece, titled “The Case Against Hunter Recruitment,” was written by my brother Matt Rinella. It focuses on Matt’s distrust with what is known in the hunting industry as R3. While it sounds like a droid from Star Wars, R3 actually stands for a formal initiative to recruit new hunters, reactivate hunters who have quit, and retain hunters who are currently active. The movement has only been around in its current form since 2016, when advocates took a sort of industrialized approach to the task using marketing dollars and concerted efforts to grow hunter numbers. Matt argues that R3 may not be necessary, and that it’s not the best use for money that would otherwise go to wildlife conservation.

Over the years, Matt has become increasingly concerned about the impacts of hunting pressure on public land. In fact, he sees increased pressure as the primary threat against public land hunting. Most of us will agree that any given landscape has a carrying capacity for predators—be they human or animal. To put it bluntly, if every American killed a deer next year, we’d have a deficit of approximately 200 million deer. As we continue to lose wildlife habitat to development, and as the practice of leasing private property for hunting access continues to increase, hunters without the means to buy or lease land are increasingly squeezed onto fewer and fewer acres.

When I chose to publish the piece, I knew that Matt’s frustrations with R3 are not widely shared at MeatEater. We promote hunting tirelessly. We incentivise hunter mentorship within our ranks by rewarding mentor-employees with prizes such as new optics, free wild game processing, and a day of fishing in a drift boat rowed by a colleague. In addition, MeatEater recently bought a farm in Michigan, fixed it all up, and then donated it to the National Deer Association to support their Field to Fork mentorship program. Multiple members of our staff sit on the board of Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, which is an aggressive player in R3. Personally, I sit on the board of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which, while not as aggressive around R3, is certainly supportive of that mission. Collectively, we have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for these organizations.

As an introduction to Matt’s piece, I wrote that I agreed with his perspective more and more all the time. What I didn’t do was specifically state what parts of his argument I agree with. In retrospect, this was a critical omission. To answer that question now, I’ll say this: We, the hunting industry, need to be cognizant of the fact that our actions impact the lives of the people whom we celebrate and defend. Even when we’re careful to hide the exact locations where we film, there’s still an undeniable uptick in visitation to those places. When we do a high-profile purchase of a property to support a hunting mentorship program, maybe we’re displacing a family who’s already been doing the quiet job of hunter recruitment on that place for generations. To sum it up, we can’t just embrace the job of hunter recruitment without addressing some of the broader consequences and acknowledging the give-and-take of it all.

The other problem is that I didn’t clearly state that my colleagues do not necessarily share my concerns. Or rather, that my concerns are outweighed by what my colleagues see as the benefits of R3. Many of them view hunter recruitment as the surest way to a stronger conservation movement and greater political sway when it comes to fighting the radical animal rights agenda. I do, too.

As with most provocative op-eds, the piece generated a lot of thoughtful feedback. One of the most valuable counterpoints to the op-ed came from Hunters of Color, which pointed out that Matt’s argument didn’t take into account groups of people that are currently underrepresented in the hunting community. Matt argues that hunter recruitment is best left to networks of friends and families, but what about those individuals who did not benefit from the generosity of those networks? I became a hunter because my father was a hunter. Everyone isn’t that lucky. Following the Civil War, we enacted aggressive legislation and policy that was deliberately intended to dissuade African Americans from hunting. If you want to pretend this can’t be true, go read “Hunting and Fishing In the New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War” by Scott Giltner. With their personal hunting networks severed in the past, does that mean African Americans should be discouraged from taking a seat at the table now? And what about Native Americans, who were removed from their ancestral hunting grounds many generations ago? Do they need to refrain from establishing a renewed relationship to hunting due to our own perceived crowding issues? And what of women, who comprise only around 10% of hunters in the U.S.? Do those percentages need to stand in perpetuity? These are questions that, admittedly, weren’t adequately considered in Matt’s piece. The best explanation that I can give for our omission of thought is that we were never forced by personal circumstance to consider these things. It was a blind spot.

Some have taken this blind spot in the argument to mean that Matt must be some selfish asshole who hates other hunters. This is flat out wrong. Matt takes scores of friends and colleagues out hunting and fishing every year. Many of them are new hunters from non-traditional backgrounds. If someone doesn’t know where to go hunting or fishing, Matt tells them where to go. If they need gear, he gives it to them. Matt lets hunters he has never met stay in his house free of charge while they hunt his local area, often while he’s not even home. In front of his own property is a sign that says “Trespassers Welcome.” Not surprisingly, he had to custom order the sign. It seems there’s pretty low demand for a product like that.

As close as we are, Matt is seriously uneasy with many of the things that I’m involved with. He’s suspicious of social media and hates the hunting-based bragging and fame seeking that takes place there. Personally, I like social media and think it’s immensely useful and fun. Matt’s uneasy with the hunting industry, in part because many operators in that space value profits over the actual experience of the outdoors—hence their eagerness to bolster hunter numbers and, therefore, revenue. I’m a proud member of the hunting industry who believes in creating sustainable jobs for people who want to work in the space where they’re most passionate. Matt doesn’t care for hunting TV, but working on a hunting show with colleagues that I admire is one of my greatest sources of joy. As you can imagine, we get into some nasty fights about this shit.

However, I do recognize that our disagreements are based on a mutual love for the outdoors. Matt loves them so much that he wants to see them handled gently, quietly, and privately. No doubt this is informed by his profession as an ecologist. I love them so much that I want to shout it from the rooftops and show them off to the world. When we debate these approaches, we constantly inform and guide one another’s perspectives. I like to think that I change his mind about some things. Likewise, his opinions have informed my own. Such was the case around our arguments about R3.

Hopefully you will consider my explanation here in the broader context of what I’ve always tried to do with MeatEater, which is to expand and inform our conversations around hunting, fishing, conservation, and wild foods. Doing so is a great privilege. It’s also a messy job that’s bound to piss people off. Despite the risks, we’ll continue to share challenging opinions that inspire tough conversations—all for the betterment of the outdoors and the people who go there to work and play.

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