Hunting rules up for changes

HARLINGEN — The popular hunting season at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge may be in for some big changes.

Federal officials met with hunters this past week at Bass Pro Shop, and outlined their proposals for refuge hunting for the 2016/17 season at a public meeting.

They include:

H Moving applications for hunting to the state permit system (handled by the refuge now)

H Allocating all hunts on a lottery system (currently first-come, first-served)

H All hunts would be three- or five-day hunts (archery hunts all are five days now, firearms hunts three days)

H Pricing would be $80 for a three-day hunt and $130 for the five-day (all hunts are $80 now)

H Limiting hunters to one firearm and one archery hunt per season (one firearm, two archery now)

H Implementing an application fee of $2.50 (no application fee now)

H Allowing up to four hunters to apply as a group

Refuge officials said the changes were needed because of a lack of resources and staffing to continue administering the permitting program. They said the changes would provide better customer service.

Some hunters at the meeting remain unconvinced that the proposals would improve the hunting experience at Laguna Atascosa.

“They may think it’s a great thing, but we don’t,” said Dann Gracia, a Harlingen resident who says he has hunted the refuge often.

Gracia voiced his concerns that hunts were becoming shorter, but prices weren’t being lowered to match.

“A few years back, an eight-day hunt was $60,” he added.

Money and hunting are age-old issues of contention in Texas. With so little public land available for hunting, most hunters resort to paying for leases for property on which to hunt.

Rudy Garza of Eagles Nest Archery in Sebastian is one of South Texas’ best-known archery instructors. Like Gracia, he was concerned that Valley residents who can’t afford to lease hunting land now may be priced out of the refuge hunt at Laguna Atascosa.

“Around here, you probably would have the lowest-income people,” Garza said, “and they want to raise the price to $130 (for a five-day hunt). It’s hard for anybody who doesn’t have that kind of money.”

Robert Jess, senior manager for the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, is project leader on the changes.

“I told Rob, ‘Look, bro. You make six figures,’” Gracia said he told Jess at the meeting. “I don’t. I can’t travel to California or Alaska … he has a big moose on his Facebook page. You can afford it, I can’t.”

Jess did not return a call seeking comment.

Garza said he was concerned about shortening the archery hunts from five days to three. He said it puts a bowhunter at a disadvantage.

He said archery hunting is different than firearms hunting, and he believes bowhunters need more time to absorb a hunting area in order to increase their odds of success.

“With a hunter paying so much money for three days, I don’t think that 50 percent of archers would have a chance to harvest an animal in just a couple days,” Garza said. “It’s going to hurt the bow hunter.”

Bag limits last season were two white-tailed deer, one doe and one buck, or two does. Unlimited bag limits are the rule for nilgai antelope and feral hogs, both of which are invasive species. Those regulations are expected to remain the same.

Hunting dates are expected to remain approximately the same, from late November to mid-December for bowhunters, and from mid-December to mid-January for firearms hunters.

The U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the federal refuges, has not made any final decision about the changes at Laguna Atascosa.

But Garza, for one, thinks the deal is done.

“The rules are the rules,” he said, “and they’re the ones running the program.”