Who cares about the porcupine?

When planning a recent kayaking and camping adventure to Long Island in the Willapa Bay of southwest Washington, my research turned up an intriguing article by Jeff Layton for the Seattle Times. In his piece he describes his own trip to the island, part of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. [For anyone who is interested in a good description of his kayak camping adventure, please read his travel piece.] Layton wrote, ”When my wife spotted a porcupine peeking over a bluff a short while later, I was convinced that we had somehow leapt onto the pages of an adventure novel.” For a lab-girl biologist with limited field experience, these words were seductive: I wanted to experience a wildlife encounter with some fantastical beast.

Long Island can only be reached during high tides by boat, the more buoyant craft the better: perfect for kayaks. At low tide, the island is surrounded by mud flats and boaters are warned not to get caught on these sticky morasses. In fact, if stuck on a mud flat, it is recommended that you stay in your boat until you are either rescued or the tide returns. Once you step out onto the mud, it acts like quicksand, cementing you in place; not a good thing as water rises on an incoming tide. Once to the island, its land-mass is about 5 miles long by 2 miles wide. The land undulates between sea-level salt marshes and muddy sloughs to green forested hills and meadows. The wildlife on the island is diverse and includes several endangered species, like the marbled murrelet, a seabird that nests only in old growth cedar limbs.

The animals I most wanted to see on my own excursion were the Roosevelt elk and porcupine. If I was lucky, I hoped to see a far-off black bear or, at least, its scat. Because elk and bear are significant to hunters, their numbers on the island have been measured though the research is old enough to be considered obsolete. In the 1970s, the estimated number of Roosevelt elk on the island was between 40-45. Today, rangers in the area have seen 60-70 members in a single herd on the island with other herds suspected. Another study done between 1973-75 estimated 30 black bears resided on the island. Current numbers have not been calculated. Because of these studies and a multitude of Google images of both Long Island elk and bear, I thought it likely I might observe one or both on our trip. Unfortunately, my husband and I did not see either of these species. However, on a 7 mile hike traversing the island, we played continuous hopscotch between the hundreds of elk patties along the trail. We knew the elk were there, but they remained hidden.

The day before we left, I was feeling a bit let down. From what I had read and found on-line, it seemed that every other visitor to the island had experienced some fantastic wildlife encounter. Oh sure, lazing in the hammock under the warm sun was great. Hearing the bay waves lapping the shore as I drifted to sleep was like hearing a perfect lullaby. And yeah, hiking through the eerie old growth cedar grove at the center of the island was unlike any other forest experience I have had. But swaying on the hammock looking over the rhythmic waves, my inner biology child was stamping her metaphorical foot: she wanted to see a mammal!

As I pondered, I heard a scratching noise on the south end of the little beach of our campsite. Turning, I saw a round, slow, bumbling creature, head-down to the wet pebbles. The porcupine was completely ignorant of my presence as he (she?) made its way towards me. I was so excited; I jumped up, grabbed my good camera (too good an opportunity for just the iPhone!) and scrambled down to the shore. In my excitement, I clumsily slipped along some of the pebbles, clicking-clacking towards the small beastie. Immediately, his back went up revealing the infamous rows of quills.

Each American porcupine has approximately 30,000 barbed quills for protection. The scientific name for the American porcupine, Erethizon dorsatum, humorously translates from Greek as “animal with an irritating back. “ Once one of these “irritating” quills breaks the skin of its intended victim, sharp barbs along the quill push it continuously deeper into the flesh. In 2015, researchers found that the barbs allow the quills to break the skin and move through the flesh with less effort than barb-less quills. Once within the flesh, the barbs can cause more damage and even death as they move through the circulatory system and body cavities. One report described quills found puncturing the lungs and heart of a German short-haired pointer who had gotten into a scuffle with a porcupine two weeks prior. The quills are so effective at protection that the porcupine has only two wildlife predators: the mountain lion and the fisher, a carnivorous relative of the mink.

On the short beach, I was not too anxious seeing the porcupine’s backend and quills. I knew I was far out-of-range. It is actually a myth that the porcupine throws his quills; he must be able to smack you with his tail. So I stood quietly with my camera to my eye videoing this amazing creature. After a short time, the porcupine began his slow, lumbering walk along my pebbled beach again. Porcupines have poor eyesight, which they make up for with excellent smell and hearing. I am sure my camping cologne was pungent, but the breeze on the shore was thankfully blowing downwind. I easily followed my prey as he moved with a rocking, lackadaisical rhythm for about a quarter of a mile until he disappeared into beach grass at the marsh’s edge.

I had seen my mammal: a plump porcupine in his own element. Once seeing him, I found myself claiming a bit of ownership of that wild creature. I had shared his journey, if only for a little while, and didn’t that mean we were partners for that time? I wondered about him and his existence. What was he eating? Where did he winter during the cold and rain? Did he have offspring on the island? There was something so endearing in the little creature, I wanted to learn all about him.

Porcupines have a broad range and can live in many environments, from deserts to riparian zones along the rivers. They thrive at lower altitudes and all the way up to mountainous higher elevations. In the 1800s and 1900s, porcupines were treated as pests, especially in the western states that depend on forestry and logging industries. A porcupine’s favorite winter meal is found in bark strips of young saplings. A forester might be forgiven for having antipathy towards the creature that kills the trees in his wood. Government regulated eradication programs were instituted to protect the forests. Money was paid to folks who could prove porcupine kills by hunting or poisoning. Surprisingly, these practices continued until the 1980’s. However, the idea that the porcupine was a pest and danger to crops was set. Perhaps because of their poor reputations, researchers have not paid much attention to their numbers.

I could not find any research past or present for population studies of porcupines in either Washington or Oregon. Recent papers have described the declining populations of the American porcupine in Northern California and Arizona. Additionally, an unpublished study by Kerry Foresman, professor emeritus of the University of Montana, and his graduate student, Katie Mally, also indicated that the numbers in Montana have been diminishing, especially at higher elevations. Without anyone paying attention, the populations of these spiny critters have been shrinking. There are several possible reasons for their loss, but none have been fully explored. An important fact to know about this species is that females have only one offspring each year. Porcupines will not rebound quickly if their populations experience a fast decline.

What kind of selective pressures could be causing a drop in the numbers of porcupines in the Western states? Have mountain lion and fishers been more aggressively preying on them? Is a new pathogen attacking their communities? Or, I think a more likely answer, has humankind been the culprit in decreasing their numbers? It is very likely that we have shrunk their habitat as we spread suburban sprawl. Additionally, because the little guys are so slow, they are often found beside the asphalt as road-kill.

Thinking about my porcupine buddy on Long Island, I am thankful he has room to roam. He has a protected refuge with plentiful and varied forage. The mountain lions are few on the island, and those hunters have plentiful and easier prey available. And best of all, the land is protected from human habitation. It would be wonderful to read a study on the population of American porcupine on Long Island to see just how many of these quiet critters there are. Most of all, my inner biology child is happy to have been able to interact with such a unique creature in its own home.


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