By SARAH MORRIS

Stuttgart Daily Leader

ST. CHARLES — Flooding, then drought conditions have highlighted a growing nuisance of feral hogs as they increasingly root and dig more of Arkansas County. It’s a growing concern across the state and within the county, especially in the White River National Wildlife Refuge.

Jay Hitchcock, the refuge’s wildlife biologist, said while there are more hogs in the Big Island area south of the refuge, the population on the 160,000-acre refuge has increased within the past five to 10 years.

"Where we’ve really noticed them is over on the White River levee on the south unit and they’re out there on the levee really rooting it up and exposing a lot of dirt," Hitchcock said. "That’s not good on the levee because if it floods, the water can wash away the levee."

Hitchcock said it only takes four to five hogs to accomplish major damage, which looks like a tornado went through. Feral hogs are descendants of escaped domesticated pigs that can easily top 300 pounds, according to the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. The hogs’ domestic roots have the animals falling under the Arkansas Livestock and Poultry Commission’s regulation. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission governs hog hunting in state wildlife management areas.

Jaret Rushing, the Calhoun County extension agent for the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said in a news release that the feral hogs reproduce quickly ? they can produce two litters of six to 10 piglets every 12-15 months and are mature at eight months.

"Hogs are primarily root and tuber feeders. They dig in the ground for food," Rushing said.

Feral hogs dig up crops, gardens and lawns, and eat just about anything. Hitchcock said they like acorns and the hard mast of trees as well as plenty of water and mud.

"When we’re dry, we’ve got the perfect habitat for them," Hitchcock said.

Within the refuge, Hitchcock said he would guess there was less than 50 feral hogs on the 60,000 acre north unit while there could be 200 on the 100,000 south unit. He said the south unit’s population was probably higher due to higher ground that provides the feral hogs safety when it floods. The north unit stretches from St. Charles to Clarendon while the south unit covers St. Charles to just south of Tichnor, also allowing feral hogs to come up through Trusten Holder.

"We are kind of blessed because we flood so much," Hitchcock said.

He said the refuge’s flooding was a saving grace because it does not leave a lot of dry ground for the feral hogs to remain on. He credited the feral hogs being on the refuge because of the "really dry fall last year" that had them traveling further for food.

This year’s drought conditions have pushed the feral hog population increasingly closer to Arkansas residents as they look for food and water. Mary Hightower of the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said it remains an issue despite recent rainfall since the feral hogs likely have litters now, which means extra mouths to feed.

As deer season approaches, Hightower said feral hogs would remain a problem since they are often sighted at deer feeders.

When it’s flooded, Hitchcock said the pigs become more of a problem for farmers since they are drawn to crops such as corn. Rushing said their feeding habits also rile turkey hunters since they will destroy turkey habitats with their rooting and eat turkey and other ground nesting bird eggs.

"Our largest concern on the refuge is the amount of habitat damage they do and direct competition they have with (native) refuge wildlife for food resources," Hitchcock said. "The damage on the White River levee was the easiest to see and really brought it to our attention that we may have a hog problem on the refuge."

He said they wanted to minimize damage to the levee since it’s what protects them from flooding.

To accomplish this task, the refuge is now setting traps that use a trip wire system to shut the door once the feral hogs are in the trap. Hitchcock said they accomplish their best and most effective trapping from February through April. It halts during the summer since bears are more apt to amble into the traps. The bears are able to climb out of the cages.

It also helps to trap when its flooded. Hitchcock said only about 1,000 acres were dry the last time it flooded, which worked to the refuge officials’ advantage. They are focusing primarily on the White River levee area, which is 40 miles from the refuge’s visitor center.

Once trapped, the hogs are disposed of since feral hogs are disease carriers, making it impossible for refuge officials to give the feral hogs away. The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture said wildlife officials in many states fear that hogs could spread diseases such as brucellosis that affect cattle while hog feces could contaminate water ways.

Hitchcock said hunters are allowed to shoot feral hogs during any legal hunting season with ammunition that is legal for that specific season.

"So if it’s squirrel season and they are out there squirrel hunting and they see a pig, they can shoot the pig," Hitchcock said. "But only with ammunition they would be shooting squirrels with."

The refuge allows waterfowl, turkey, squirrel, rabbit as well as deer hunting. Hunters are also allowed to shoot beavers, nutrias and coyotes during any daytime refuge hunt with weapons legal for that hunt.

Rushing said, in Arkansas, feral hog hunting without a permit is legal day or night and with any weapon on private lands, although the hunter must have the landowners permission. Feral hogs are not considered aggressive.

"They’re not going to seek you out in the woods to attack you," Rushing said. "If you wander up to one and it feels cornered, it will defend itself ? same goes for most any wild animal from bobcats to squirrels. They are just as scared of you as you may be of it."