Concerned Hunters Rally to Save Public Hunting Privilege

When Charles Leal of Brownsville pulled up to his favorite whitewing hunting location on the outskirts of town, he was dismayed to discover that this might be his last season to hunt on the state owned property.

The 1,200 acre Resaca de la Palma State Park just north of Brownsville has been a popular destination for hundreds of dove hunters for more than a decade, but since the park has been designated one of the Rio Grande Valley's nine World Birding Center sites officials are phasing out public hunting opportunities. This closure would eliminate nearly a third of the state land available to hunters in the Valley.

"I hear they have an issue here that they want to close this to hunters, and we see that being a sad situation, because that's the whole idea, to be in the great outdoors with your children," Leal said. "Being able to come out to a park this close to home is a rare opportunity for families, and eliminating this opportunity is going to affect future generations of hunters."

Park Manager Pablo Yturbe was busy signing in hunters on opening day of the
special two weekend whitewing season, but acknowledged that this might be the last hunting opportunity allowed on the property.

"It might change, because we are constructing the visitor's center and birding trails," Yturbe said. "We are part of the nine sites, and we are bringing the bird watchers to the Valley."

Final judgment has not been passed on whether this will be the last special whitewing season allowed, but officials have already shut down the regular dove and quail season that hunters have enjoyed for the past 13 years. "That is not going to be allowed, because we will be having visitors to the park, and they would collide with the hunters," Iturbe explained.

"When I found out that it was closed this year, we started putting together a petition and some letters to the state to try and reopen this pubic land the way it should be," said Joe Kitterman from Rancho Viejo.

Like most hunters this day, Casey Monroe of Brownsville registered to hunt with park personnel and then strode across the dusty road to sign the petition. Joining Monroe were two of his sons and all there signed. "This is our only opportunity to hunt in Texas and utilize the public lands," Monroe said. "It is just too expensive to buy a lease on private land. We have been coming out here for several years, and if we didn't have this opportunity my sons would not be able to gain their hunting skills."

"I'm from Wisconsin where we have a lot of public land, and here in Texas it's very limited," Monroe lamented. "Once I learned about the place, my three boys and I have been coming out for the past four years."

"I've had a lot of good times out here," Casey's son Augustine said.

There are ten other Texas Parks and Wildlife units totaling 2,400 acres in the Valley that are open for dove hunting, and none of them are being considered for closure. No one knows how many hunters utilize the properties during the special two weekend whitewing season, as only Resaca de la Palma and two others are staffed. "We simply don't have the staff to cover them all," said local Parks and Wildlife biologist Sam Patten. "In 2004 we know we had on the three staffed units 800 hunters."

Hunting and bird watching are not mutually exclusive, and many hunters like Leal believe there is room for both. "I definitely think we can work it out," Leal said. "They have got plenty of land. We could definitely share this."

"Statewide we have public hunting on 43 different parks, staffed and run by parks people," Patten said. "The park is shut down. The hunters come in, harvest the game and they leave, and the park opens back up."

Only about 300 acres of Resaca de la Palma is routinely utilized by dove and quail hunters. They concentrate along the edges of old farm fields as the rest of the park is not very suitable for bird hunting. The area around the visitor's center is thick resaca woodlands, and that is where birding trails are being built.

Lind Campbell, Director of Public Hunting for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, would like to keep the park open. "We are trying to squeeze as much public hunting out of our available lands as possible, and I would be delighted if we could reach a compromise and keep the dove season open."

Russell Fishbeck, Regional Director of State Parks, indicated officials are leaning in the direction of closure, but the ultimate decision rests with the Parks and Wildlife Commission. No date has been set for a final decision on whether the special whitewing season will be allowed next year.

Franco Garza of Olmito was hunting with his son and nephew, and as the shadows lengthened flights of whitewing began to appear over the tress. The birds came fast and high, but Garza deftly swung on one and dropped it like a rock with a single shot. As he watched his lab race after the downed bird, he remarked, "We have been coming out here for six years, and we just want somewhere to come out with the family and the dog and have some fun."

His nephew Gerrado Gonzales helped the excited lab find the bird in the tall grass, and then proudly held up the tasty prize. "It's so much fun," Gonzales said. "It's fun getting in the grass and grabbing up the birds."

"I think we can have both. If they can keep opening it for the whitewing season that would be plenty for us," Garza added.

According to a Parks and Wildlife survey taken during the first weekend of the hunt, a total of 219 hunters used Resaca de la Palma opening weekend and at least 57 were from out of the Valley. The average amount spent by each hunter overall was $430.10 which included shotgun shells, fuel, food, beverage, lodging, hunting gear, their license and $48 year round state hunting permit. On the staffed units approximately 726 hunters registered and at $430.10 per hunter they added $312,252.60 to the economy.

Nearly 20 percent of those hunting at Resaca de la Palma were youth hunters, and Bryan Butler and his daughter Rachel traveled from Houston for the weekend. "It's very disappointing to us," Brian Butler said. "My family has been coming down for about eight years, and it is some of the best times we have with our family."

"I'm excited! I hope I get at least two dove," Rachel exclaimed.

"We are really disappointed that this may not be an opportunity to become a tradition for my kids," Rachel's father said.

A letter signed by hunters accompanying the petition, stated: "By closing this property you will soon overcrowd the rest of the properties close to here. This unit is an excellent hunting property and a great place for families to teach their youth to hunt. As you know without public hunting lands the opportunity for people to pass down safe hunting techniques from generation to generation becomes more and more difficult. I am requesting this property be reopened during regular season and remain open for many years to come."

"I would love to see it continue where we could work hand in hand for the sake of the children, so they could come out with their families and enjoy this area and the hunting that we have," Leal said.

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore