The Ben Burr Trail, the mile-long forested path that slices across the South Hill, is a magical swath of urban wildness.
During my walks there, I’ve seen coyotes and skunks, Cooper’s hawks and lazuli buntings, bald eagles and turkey flocks. And when two bison busted loose from their pasture last year, where did they go? Straight to the Ben Burr.
Still, none of that prepared me for the animal that my wife and I encountered there earlier this month: a porcupine.
We came upon the porcupine as he shuffled through the trailside leaf litter just before dusk, in no particular hurry. He was unexpectedly beautiful, with a great Rod Stewart-like explosion of pale quills sprouting from his head. His thick tail dragged behind his body, which was as dense and compact as a bulldog’s. His paws, when he stopped to nibble twigs, were like a raccoon’s in their dexterity. Elderly women and skateboarding teenagers stopped to watch him munch, enchanted by the bizarre creature who’d found his way into our midst.
The sighting left me feeling delighted – and, frankly, a bit ignorant. As we watched the porcupine make his leisurely rounds, I racked my brain for buried facts.
One: For such ungainly critters, porcupines are nimble climbers.
Two: They’re herbivores who subsist on leaves, fruit and buds in spring and summer, and a starvation diet of bark and needles in winter.
Three: Despite legends to the contrary, they can’t throw their quills.
And … what else? I was stumped. It felt discourteous: If a porcupine was going to be our neighbor, I should at least get to know the guy.
When, later that week, I perused the internet in search of porcupologists, I discovered that scientists, too, are in the dark. Porcupines are a neglected species. They lack the popular appeal of salmon, or the economic value of elk, or wolves’ knack for social polarization. The few researchers who historically paid attention to porcupines mostly focused on finding creative ways to kill them.
“There’s not a ton of interest or funding for porcupines,” Cara Appel, an ecologist at Oregon State University, told me dryly. “They’re under the radar. They’re common, but we just don’t see them.”
Appel is one of a handful of scientists who has closely studied these retiring rodents. Her master’s research entailed radio-collaring and tracking porcupines as they waddled through the forests of northern California. If you’re wondering how one wrangles such an unwieldy beast, here’s the technique: Put on your heaviest welding gloves, stalk the forest floor at night, and, when you find one rustling through the brush, shoo her gently into a 20-gallon trash can. Oh, and watch out for her muscular, quill-studded tail.
“Probably the worst time, I got a dozen quills in my elbow,” Appel said. I could practically hear her wince over the phone.
Despite the occasional jabbing, the experience cemented Appel’s affection for porcupines. It also sparked her concern. All over the West, she learned, naturalists, loggers and locals were murmuring about porcupines’ mysterious disappearance. In Montana, surveys suggested that people were seeing fewer signs of porcupines than before. In Arizona, one study found that the prickle-pigs, formerly widespread, had become “an unusual animal.”
Intrigued, Appel turned her attention to the fate of porcupines in the Northwest. She and colleagues pulled together hundreds of scattered porcupine records, using sources from camera trap surveys to citizen science apps to the photo-sharing website Flickr. Nearly three-quarters of the total sightings came from roadkill databases. Quills are a brilliant defense against black bears, but they don’t help much when the predator is an F-150.
The resultant study, published last month in the journal Northwestern Naturalist, suggests that the Northwest, too, has been afflicted by the national decline of porcupines. Curiously, the drop-off seems most acute in forests, traditionally considered prime porcupine habitat. The species’ niche, Appel and her colleagues wrote, appears to be shifting, from conifer woods to “grassland and scrub vegetation types.”
So what explains their dwindling numbers and changing habits? Appel suspects three main causes, acting independently or, more likely, in combination.
The first possibility is that evolving forestry practices are squeezing them out. Porcupines prefer the tender, delectable bark and foliage of young trees. In the 1920s, porcupine populations exploded in the wake of clear-cutting, as slender saplings sprung up where old-growth forests once towered. As reduced logging allows our forests to age again, porcupines might be the odd rodent out.
Another possibility is that they’re getting eaten. Only two predators are brave and pain-tolerant enough to regularly tangle with porcupines: cougars and fishers. Washington’s cougar population is stable, and fishers, a ferocious member of the weasel family, have lately been reintroduced to the state. Diminished porcupines may thus be a positive sign – an indication that a long-imbalanced ecosystem is once more being governed by top carnivores.
But there’s a third culprit, more tragic and, I suspect, more influential than the other two: years of porcupine persecution.
For such gentle, benign creatures, porcupines have a fearsome reputation in the timber and orchard industries. Their persistent gnawing on bark, buds and roots can damage trees or kill them outright. (Porkies also have a fondness for porches, ax handles, shoes, rubber tires and other chewable objects.) Widespread culls began in the 1920s, an attempt to sanitize public lands for private timber harvesters. In some forests, biologists set out blocks of pine laced with a mixture of salt, to attract porcupines, and strychnine, to kill them.
Washington was among the cull’s epicenters. A stroll through The Spokesman-Review’s archives reveals extensive anti-porcupine propaganda.
“Wildlife men, usually most tolerant toward animals good or bad, have little use for the porcupine,” sneered a Spokesman writer in 1951, who also advocated using strychnine against the “quilled nuisance.” (“A strong flashlight and a club” worked, too.) One federal agent claimed to have killed 392 porcupines in Klickitat and Skamania counties in 1961 alone.
Other rodents might be able to handle such abuse, but porcupine reproduction is as sluggish and deliberate as the animals themselves. Female prickle-pigs gestate their offspring for seven months and have only one baby – known, adorably, as a porcupette – each year.
Once diminished, a porcupine population can’t readily recover.
Why does it matter that porkers are on the outs? For one thing, the biologist Uldis Roze has described porcupines as “long-term agents of ecological diversification.” The twigs they drop feed snowshoe hares, and their tree-trimming opens up forest canopies to the benefit of grouse, warblers and deer. They aren’t as skilled as their beaver cousins, but they’re ecosystem engineers nonetheless.
Luckily, there’s a porcupine bright spot right here in Eastern Washington. Appel’s research revealed that porcupine roadkill is especially dense within a 30-mile radius of Spokane. Although unfortunate, the preponderance of pulverized porkies suggests that they’re still relatively abundant – perhaps because our region is blanketed by the sparse forests and scrublands that porcupines have come to favor.
“It definitely seems like the area around Spokane has a pretty healthy population,” Appel said.
That doesn’t mean you’re likely to see one – these are nocturnal tree-dwellers, after all. Still, I’m heartened to know that, amidst a porcupine decline, our region remains something of a rodent redoubt. That evening on the Ben Burr Trail, I spent a couple of hours watching our resident porcupine as he daintily nibbled maple buds and rose bushes. I admired his stoicism and dignity; he couldn’t have been less concerned by my presence if I’d been a block of basalt. I felt lucky to have crossed his path, and I hope his quilled comrades find their niche in the changing Northwest.
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