The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is seeking the public’s input about a proposal to expand hunting opportunities at the largest wildlife refuge in the Rio Grande Valley: Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. The proposal would open up additional acreage to public hunting, and could also give hunters a new prize to seek: gators.

“We’re proposing new areas to be hunted, and a new species that would be hunted, and that’s the American alligator,” explained Refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde Wednesday.

“We’re mainly opening, though, new areas to exotic species: the nilgai antelope, feral hog and other exotic species that may appear on the refuge would be opened (to hunting) if this proposal moves forward,” Blihovde said.

The refuge encompasses some 110,000 acres in Cameron County. Located east of Los Fresnos, it stretches north of State Highway 100 as far north as Arroyo City, and south of Highway 100 to the city limits of Brownsville.

Its acreage skips over the towns of Laguna Vista and Port Isabel and across the hypersaline Laguna Madre, before its boundaries begin again among the sand dunes of South Padre Island, far north of SPI city limits. Vast swaths of the sand and surf as far north as the Port Mansfield cut are refuge property.

Among that jumble of land tracts lies rare coastal prairie, thornscrub forest that serves as vital habitat to the endangered ocelot, and the single largest wetlands restoration project in the country: the Bahia Grande.

And while migratory birds and leisurely bike rides along peaceful nature lanes may be the first things that come to mind when one thinks of the refuge, it is also a favorite among sportsmen and women seeking big game thrills.

Since the 1970s, the refuge has offered hunters the opportunity to bag deer, feral hogs and nilgai, which are a type of large antelope native to India.

An alligator warning sign is seen at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge.
(Photo by Steve Hillebrand, courtesy USFWS)

Hunting of the latter two achieves a critical purpose at the refuge. As non-native species, the large animals can wreak damage to local flora and fauna — outcompeting native species for food, or destroying the native plants those local animals not only depend on, but which help maintain the balance of the native ecosystem.

The movement of nilgai, for instance, can cause serious damage to the mangroves which serve as buffers between the influx of saltwater from the bay, and the few freshwater lakes on the refuge.

With no natural predators, populations of nuisance species can grow unchecked, making the hunts an important part of conservation management. “There’s no large carnivore predators left here any longer in South Texas to a large enough extent to handle species like a nilgai antelope, which gets really large,” Blihovde said.

“The only other way we really have to manage them is either through our own actions at the refuge, like going out and just harvesting the species ourselves with refuge staff … Or the other option is these public hunts which is our preference because it gives that opportunity to the public, which is something we like to try to do,” he said.

Refuge officials fear alligator populations could pose similar issues. Though American alligators are native to Texas, the Rio Grande Valley is at the extreme edge of their range. And at the refuge, it’s estimated the species was introduced by man sometime in the mid-1940s.

Over 100 gators can sometimes be found in the refuge’s namesake lagoon, the 3,500-acre Laguna Atascosa, which serves as the single largest source of freshwater in the region. The gator population fluctuates, depending on drought conditions, Blihovde said.

“We don’t think that it’s to a point where we need to get alarmed, but we don’t — outside of hunting — have a way to control the population. So this is one means to do that,” the refuge manager said of the proposal to add alligators to the list of huntable species at the refuge.

If the proposal is approved, alligator hunts would be added to the refuge’s hunt lottery system, which is administered by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Too, new portions would be opened up for hunting, including the expansive Bahia Grande unit, which is currently closed to most public access, including hiking or biking.

The proposal also includes offering more opportunities for youth hunters between the ages of 9 and 17 years old at a tract of land called La Selva Verde.

Currently, the refuge offers 1,000 hunting permits per year, with several hunts spaced out over the course of the year. The expansion proposal would add approximately 450 more permits, with 200 of those reserved for nilgai and feral hog hunts at the Bahia Grande Unit.

Demand for permits far exceeds supply, with the refuge receiving approximately 5,000 permit applications per year, according to a draft environmental impact statement refuge officials published this month.

In all, some “45,086 acres will be open to hunting in three main refuge units: Laguna Atascosa, Bahia Grande, and La Selva Verde” will be open to hunting, reads a draft hunt plan prepared by the refuge in January.

The refuge will be accepting comments through April 30. Blihovde encourages residents to make a comment, no matter their opinion of hunting. “Right now, we’re just requesting public comment — either positive or negative — on what they think of our plan,” he said.

Comments can be submitted via email to Blihovde at Boyd_Blihovde@fws.gov, or by mail to: Laguna Atascosa NWR, 22817 Ocelot Road, Los Fresnos, 78566.