LOS FRESNOS — Big-game hunting in the Rio Grande Valley is about to take a turn in favor of the average hunter.

At the direction of President Trump, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is leading a charge to open up an additional 1.4 million acres for hunting and eliminate some 7,500 regulations limiting access to federal lands.

“He’s basically said, ‘Git-R-Done,’” Bernhardt told the Washington Examiner.

Under the plan, thousands of additional acres are expected to open up to hunters at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge (proposed 27,100 total hunting acres) and the Lower Rio Grande Valley Wildlife Refuge (5,993 hunting acres).

Hopefully, these new opportunities for hunter access will be in place when this year’s season starts in the fall, officials say.

Hunting already is allowed on both of these federal refuges but the new directive from Bernhardt will dramatically increase the available land for hunting white-tailed deer, nilgai antelope and feral hogs. Hunting is actually one of the prime directives for the nation’s wildlife refuges, and for many it is necessary to manage animal populations.

Affordable hunting

The Interior Department will not only open more federal lands for hunters, the agency also has ordered its managers at the local level to work to better mesh federal laws with state game laws.

In the past, regulating hunting simultaneously on private lands and federal lands has been a major headache for law enforcement personnel and hunters alike.

But the thing which will please local hunters the most is the new initiative opens up avenues for affordable big-game hunting.

Unlike many states, in Texas 93 percent of all land is privately owned and hunting access is controlled by its owners.

But hunting leases can run into the tens of thousands of dollars a year for an exclusive right to hunt private land, and alternatively, many ranches charge thousands of dollars for just a one-day or two-day hunt for big-game animals.

These high costs put hunting for large game animals out of reach for many Texas hunters.

Hunting nilgai or deer at Laguna Atascosa or the Lower RGV refuges, by comparison, costs a fraction of the fees charged on private lands.

“That is just a huge opportunity for the folks who can’t afford to go to the King Ranch, and there’s nothing against the King Ranch and the opportunities they allow for, but they charge a lot,” said Boyd Blihovde, refuge manager at Laguna Atascosa. “A lot of people can’t afford to do that type of hunt. But here at Laguna, our permits are as little as $80 and the highest is $130.”

Setting priorities

While it may surprise some that a wildlife “refuge” would allow or even welcome hunts for game animals, these federally owned lands always have operated with hunters and fishermen in mind.

The “Big Six” as they’re known within the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are priority activities. They are hunting, fishing, wildlife observation, environmental education, interpretation and photography.

“It’s really the ‘Big Three’ right now with this administration and with the Secretary of Interior’s priorities,” Blihovde said. “It’s fishing, hunting and wildlife observation as well. But fishing and hunting access are two of the big priorities we’re trying to promote on refuges.”

Blihovde hunts big game himself, and although he doesn’t apply for one of the 1,000 hunting permits issued annually at Laguna (800 for archery and 200 for firearm hunts), he applies elsewhere for permits to hunt on federal land. Sometimes, he admits, he isn’t lucky enough to win one.

“One thing I’m proud of here at Laguna, and I can’t say for certain, but I’ve always wanted to know, who offers the most hunt permits in the state?” Blihovde said. “I think that we do at Laguna. We offer 1,000 a year and I don’t think there’s anybody who offers more.

“We’re one of the top opportunities in the state — we’ve got to be,” he added. “I’m proud of that.”

Opening it up

Blihovde’s refuge continues to grow in size under his stewardship, and now covers more than 120,000 acres consisting of several units to make management of the refuge more efficient.

The proposed changes in hunting availability are expected to open up new areas to hunters as access expands to 27,000 acres or maybe more.

These decisions are being worked out now, and officials hope to sign off on the new access areas this summer.

“We have hunting at the main Laguna unit right now, and that’s all,” Blihovde said.

“Part of this plan that we’re proposing is to new units, like Bahia Grande, which is a different unit of Laguna,” he added. “That now is over 25,000 acres, that property. So you would add up those new units and it comes to about 40,000 acres depending on what is in our final plan.”

Bahia Grande, located along the coast of the Laguna Madre between Port Isabel and Brownsville, also has an active fishing access area which Blihovde plans to expand.

Game management

Laguna Atascosa’s problematic relationship with one invasive species, the nilgai, has led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to resort to aerial culls of the antelope to take hundreds of them off the refuge and re-open space and resources for native species.

Big-game hunts at Laguna allow the taking of nilgai, native white-tailed deer and another invasive, the feral hog.

Without hunting, Blihovde said, managing of wildlife resources would be much more difficult and probably less effective.

“The hunting program at Laguna is one of our best management tools for controlling population levels,” he said. “The top predators that used to roam South Texas, like the jaguar … they’re gone. So now hunters are our only way to keep populations in check, especially when it comes to invasive exotic species like the feral hog and the nilgai.

“It’s one of our management tools that we really depend on. If we didn’t use hunting programs, we would just have to depend on our staff or contractors to go out and reduce populations,” he added. “And that’s just a logistical nightmare, and it is expensive, or it can be.”

Targeted lands in Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge: Expand method of take for existing big game hunting on 27,100 acres to further align with state regulations.

Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge: Expand method of take for existing big game hunting on 5,933 acres to further align with state regulations.

Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge (Lake Texoma area): Expand existing migratory game bird, upland game and big game hunting to 822 new acres.

Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery (60 miles northwest of Austin): Formally open to sport fishing for the first time.

Trinity River National Wildlife Refuge (Liberty County): Expand method of take for existing upland game hunting and season date ranges for existing big game hunting to further align with state regulations on 9,024 acres. Moving all refuge hunts, including existing migratory game bird hunting, to state lottery system.

Source: Department of the Interior

How to obtain a permit

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department handles permit applications for hunting on federal wildlife refuges. Here’s how to apply

Go the TPWD website at https://tpwd.texas.gov/

Click on “hunting”

Click on “Public Hunts Drawing System: Drawn Hunts”

Once you register, you can make your bid for the refuge you want to hunt

Once registered, you can check the status of your application

You only pay after your application is approved