Steven Rinella of ‘MeatEater’ serves up cougar, criticizes opening public lands for renewable energy

The star of the Netflix series worries Biden’s new incentives will take away wildlife habitat with little to show for it.

(Chris Gill | MeatEater) Steven Rinella hunts for mountain goat in Montana snow in 2020 for a Season 10 episode of his Netflix hunting and cooking show "MeatEater."

Cougar meat tastes like pork, using dogs to tree bears isn’t cruel and renewable energy is the next big threat to wildlife habitat.

Steven Rinella, the star of the hunting-centric Netflix television series “MeatEater” and a podcast by the same name, made an appearance in Utah on Monday. He didn’t come to bag any big game, but he did shoot straight.

“I think that humans are kind of playing God,” he told The Tribune, “when they declare that certain native wildlife should not be on a landscape.”

Rinella made a stop at the Union Events Center on Monday to promote his newest book, “The MeatEater Outdoor Cookbook.” During the talk in front of a crowd of about 600 and in an interview, Rinella espoused his beliefs on the intersection of hunting and wildlife management.

Rinella has been hunting nearly all his life. His popular “MeatEater” show, which focuses on cooking wild game almost as much as tracking it, is in its 10th season. It follows him and often guest hunters — including Joe Rogan — to a variety of locales, from a bear hunt in the Alaskan wilderness to the pursuit of fox squirrels in his native Michigan and a wild pig roast in New Zealand. Following his mantra of “Live to hunt, and hunt to live,” his cookbook includes recipes like beaver confit toast and smoked moose-nose hash.

Yet Rinella has never fired his rifle or shot his bow in Utah.

(Seth Morris | MeatEater) Steven Rinella shows off the antlers of a moose he hunted in Alaska last year for a season of his Netflix hunting and cooking show "MeatEater."

He said he has tried for 17 years to get a permit, applying for swan, deer and elk tags in that time. The permitting system heavily favors locals, however, and therefore puts Rinella, who lives in Montana with his wife and three kids, at a disadvantage.

“Utah,” he said, “is not a part of my hunting repertoire.”

Admittedly no expert on the state’s hunting policies, Rinella, 49, still had some opinions on general practices. For example, he has no problems with hunting animals he said are often held up as “sacred predators.” They include, among others, bears, wolves, coyotes and mountain lions. But, he said, it needs to be done in a sustainable way that keeps populations in check without depleting them.

Two days before the end of the 2023 general legislative session, state lawmakers agreed to allow year-round hunting of mountain lions in Utah. Hunters do not need a special permit, can use any weapon that is not automatic and face no limit to the number of cats they can kill. A conservation group has since filed a lawsuit to reverse the policy changes, which it says could lead to the extinction of cougars within the state in three years.

Rinella understandably did not want to step into the midst of that conflict. He did say, however, that he believes hunting mountain lions can be good for everyone — as long as proper guardrails are in place.

“It’s been demonstrated that we can have large predators on a landscape and manage them in a way that’s compatible, with limited harvests for hunters,” he said. “So hunters win, predators win and the general public that wants to know there are large predators on the landscape, they win. To me, it’s a great place to land.”

Similarly, Rinella has no problem with the state’s practice of allowing dogs and baiting to be used in bear hunts as long as it’s done in accordance with the law. He pointed out that dogs aren’t that dissimilar to wolves and other natural predators of bears and that Native Americans have used dogs and bait to hunt bears for centuries.

(MeatEater) Steven Rinella shows off a fox squirrel he shot in Michigan for an episode of his Netflix hunting and cooking show "MeatEater." Rinella included a fox squirrel recipe in his new cookbook "MeatEater Outdoor Cooking."

Rinella is keen on leaning on history to inform future wildlife management policies. It’s why he believes federal wilderness areas should remain off-limits to electric bikes and why states were “prescient” when they banned hunting with drones. The use of drones, he said, would make hunters more efficient but then would also cut down on the number of people who would have the opportunity to hunt each season. And e-bikes open the door to other motorized vehicles.

Drones and e-bikes are just a couple of inventions that have increasingly tilted the odds toward hunters. During the question-and-answer portion of Monday’s show, panelists — among whom were Utah-based hunting influencers Casey Butler and Brian McElrea — were asked what has been the most noticeable change to hunting in their lifetimes. All gave variations of the same response: technology.

“An increase in technology, remote trail cameras and all that stuff,” Ryan Callaghan, director of conservation for “MeatEater,” said. “Site imaging when you’re fishing — all of that has greatly changed the game.”

Looking forward, however, Rinella said he fears the most pressing issue for hunters and fishers won’t be new inventions, but rather an age-old struggle: the reduction in wildlife habitat and hunting grounds. Heavy on his mind at the moment is a rule President Joe Biden’s administration finalized two weeks ago that promotes the development of clean energy sources on federal land. The rule reduces right of way fees for renewable energy projects on public lands by up to 80% and streamlines their application reviews.

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management recently closed public comment on what is being called the Western Solar Plan. The plan could open between 8 million and 55 million acres of BLM land to solar energy development.

“The biggest threat to public lands right now,” he said, “is renewable energy.”

Rinella is no climate change denier. In fact, he has historically been a strong proponent of renewable energy. However, he said, no guarantees exist that the United States will be able to reduce its carbon emissions enough to slow or halt climate change, especially since other countries contribute to the problem. If the effort doesn’t work, he reasoned, the U.S. will have carved into wilderness land and resources that animals could otherwise use to survive the stressful changes to their environment.

China is currently the world’s largest producer of carbon emissions, according to Statista. The U.S. is the runner-up, producing half as much as China but still roughly 15-17% of the world’s carbon emissions.

“To take away our habitats in the hopes that we might have a chance of mitigating some of this global issue?” Rinella told The Tribune. “It just makes me nervous.”

Rinella also voiced that opinion in a recent episode of the “MeatEater” podcast. As a rebuttal, Callaghan pointed out that in addition to slowing climate change, the public could gain back the 23 million acres of public land that are already tied up in oil and gas leases.

“Why would we not transition to building renewable infrastructure?” he asked. “Why would we stick with fossil fuels when we have the opportunity to build infrastructure, to build utility scale projects that produce renewable energy with no carbon emissions?

“There’s always trade-offs.”

A decision on how many acres the BLM will open up is expected by the end of the year.

Rinella said he finds it interesting how the issue of renewable energy on public lands has suddenly put people who were fighting side-by-side for environmental conservation at odds with one another. But he knows exactly where he stands on the issue: He’s against ceding pristine wildlife habitat to any kind of development, even when it’s designed to try to save the planet.

“I don’t think, like, ‘Someday there’ll be no roads.’ That doesn’t keep me up at night,” he said. “But what keeps me up at night is running out of wild places.”

Above all else, Rinella wants to protect the places where he can hunt mule deer and elk and the occasional cougar or black bear without worrying about putting the population off-balance. Then he can grill up the meat, from leg to liver, into a meal for his family.

And, for anyone wondering, if cougar meat tastes like pork, Rinella said, then bear is more like beef. And, according to his new cookbook, it’s perfect for Sichuan skewers and bear-grease biscuits.

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