Associated Press Writer

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Arkansas wildlife officials have relaxed hunting rules to dramatically reduce the number of feral hogs, which do an incalculable amount of damage to wilderness and crop land each year.

The beasts introduced in by Spanish explorers have bred with domestic hogs and spread at a rapid pace over the past couple of decades.

In 1977, feral pigs were seen only in an area along the Ouachita River in southwest Arkansas, but they can now be found throughout the state, said Blake Sasse, a wildlife biologist in charge of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission effort to kill off the hogs.

"Some of it is natural expansion. A lot of it is due to people catching hogs and letting them go because they want to hunt them," Sasse said. "They didn’t fly there."

It is against the law to let a captured pig go free, he added.

The hog population also is multiplying because sows can have two litters per year and average six to eight piglets per litter. They can start reproducing when they are 6 months old.

Most Arkansas wild hogs weigh between 110 pounds and 130 pounds, but some grow to 400 pounds, Sasse said.

To reduce the population, state officials have encouraged hunters to shoot any wild hogs they see while they are hunting other species, and they don’t even have to haul away the carcasses.

"We’re not interested in maintaining them as a sustainable resource," Sasse said

However, Jaret Rushing, a Calhoun County extension agent for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said there may be value in keeping some hogs around.

"If people travel to hunt them, that would provide economic benefit," said Rushing, who once hit a hog while riding on an all-terrain vehicle.

He is working with Alexandra Felix-Locher, an assistant professor of spatial information systems and wildlife at the University of Arkansas-Monticello, on a study of the hogs’ worth. As part of that, they’re mapping the animals’ territory and contacting landowners to inquire about damage caused by the hogs.

The animals are known to root through freshly planted cornfields, gobbling up every bit of seed corn farmers have planted. In the wilderness, the hogs eat acorns and other mast that deer and wild turkeys eat, making more attractive game animals compete for resources.

Hogs also kick up mud as they wallow in streams, erode banks as they rip through soil looking for food and defecate in streams, causing water quality problems.

The beasts are most common in low-lying hardwood bottomlands, some of the most critical wilderness in Arkansas. Destruction of that habitat can hurt waterfowl populations.

The wild hogs also carry diseases that pose a threat to domestic pigs and humans. Those include swine brucellosis, a bacterial disease that threatens reproduction and can spread to humans.

People should wear rubber gloves to dress hogs and cook the meat thoroughly, Sasse said.

It maybe be impossible to eliminate the hogs in the timber land of south Arkansas, much of which is traversed by people only during deer season, he said. But he thought it would be possible to get rid of them in areas where they don’t have as much of a foothold.