A prickly problem in Pennsylvania – how to curtail damage done by porcupines
Is the porcupine a furbearer?
The answer is "no," obviously. But the animal may soon be classified that way in Pennsylvania if Game Commissioner Dave Putnam, of Centre County, gets his way.
Back in 2011 – when Putnam persuaded the other commissioners to institute a hunting season on the rodents to allow sportsmen to control the considerable damage they do by gnawing on wooden posts such as those supporting cabin porches – Game Commission wildlife biologists didn't know much about porcupines.
Since then, they have been trying to determine the animal's range and numbers in Pennsylvania.
"All of our previous porcupine discussions focused on what we didn't know, but now they don't," Putnam said at the commission's recent meeting in Harrisburg. "I'm still advocating that we move them to the furbearer classification."
Such a change would allow porcupines to be trapped as well as hunted, presumably allowing more of the animals to be taken.
"Originally the concern was that we would wipe out the porcupine population, but I can't imagine, under your management – managing them conservatively as you do other species – that would happen," Putnam told commission furbearer biologist Matt Lovallo.
Lovallo had just finished giving a report about how bobcat numbers have rebounded across the state and how successful the fisher reintroduction program has been. He has also been guiding the comeback of river otters in the state.
Hunter harvest of porcupines has been 10,000 and 15,000 annually, according to the game take survey, Lovallo told commissioners. The bag limit is 10 per season, but of the few hunters who target them, by far most only kill one to three a year.
That's an "opportunistic or incidental take," he said.
"All I can say is that at the current level of take, based on the little we know now, it doesn't seem to be suppressing the continued expansion of porcupines. But I don't think we have any notion of what level of take is possible before we'd see an impact, nor do we have any idea what level of take would be achieved by trappers, should we give them an opportunity to trap porcupines."
Interestingly, changing porcupines to the furbearer category would alter how the animal's parts can be sold, and might increase demand for them. That concerns commissioners.
Commission Assistant Director Rich Palmer, who previously was head of the agency's law enforcement, said there is an illegal market for porcupine body parts, and conservation officers have intercepted some.
The quills from an average size porcupine are worth $3 to $5, and the guard hairs, used in Native American ceremonial dress, are more valuable, going for as much as $20 an ounce, Lovallo pointed out. But he said it is a painstaking process to collect them.
"Under the current classification, a person taking a porcupine cannot just go and sell the animal over the counter – they actually have to separate the parts from the meat before selling them," he explained.
"If it was classified as a furbearer, then the entire carcass could be sold over-the-counter. That is something to be considered before we move forward."
In the end, the commissioners took no action on reclassifying porcupines – perhaps because by making sportsmen buy both a hunting license and trapping permit to harvest the animal, it might actually reduce rather than increase harvest. Putnam indicated he intends to revisit the subject in the coming months.