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Porcupines make pointed W.Va. return

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As elk return to West Virginia in the southwest thanks to overflow from a successful reintroduction effort in neighboring Kentucky, another mammal once at home in the Mountain State is re-establishing its residency in the northeastern mountains.

Porcupines, the bark-gnawing, quill-bearing rodents second in size only to the beaver, can now be found in scattered locations from Randolph to Berkeley counties.

"They've been slowly creeping south from Northern Pennsylvania for decades, but they haven't been seen in this state until fairly recently," said Gene Thorn, the Division of Natural Resources wildlife biologist who manages the West Virginia Wildlife Center at French Creek.

"I think they were first spotted in Hampshire County, and they've spread from there," Thorn said. "We've had at least one sighting here in Upshur County."

"Actually, they've been showing up here for quite a long time," said Allan J. Niederberger, assistant district wildlife biologist for the Division of Natural Resources' District II, headquartered in Romney. "We saw the first couple killed on the road probably about 20 years ago.

"At first, we suspected they were coming down on tractor-trailer traffic using the Interstate 81 corridor but, over time, it became obvious a natural expansion of the porcupine population is taking place," he said, with the animals moving in from Pennsylvania and Maryland.

While no study has been undertaken to gauge the population of porcupines in West Virginia, sightings of the spiny rodent have been increasing, Niederberger said. "What kind of density we have, I can't tell you, but they're here, and we're getting more and more calls about them -- most of them from hunters who use dogs, and the dogs end up with noses full of quills."

He said people in Hampshire and Hardy counties walking through forested areas have reported seeing piles of bark shavings and manure pellets on the ground -- evidence of porcupines living in, and dining on, trees.

Niederberger has personal experience in dealing with a West Virginia porcupine, having captured one that was chewing up ornamental evergreens in a Fort Ashby subdivision two years ago

Despite the growing number of porcupine sightings, "most people -- even people in this area -- don't know they're here," he said.

Marsha Waybright of Laurel Fork Farm at Jenningston, near the Tucker-Randolph county border, is among West Virginians who are aware of the porcupine's presence.

In 2009, "I came home from a horse ride, and found our three Norwegian elkhounds with quills in their faces," she said. "I had no idea there were porcupines near our farm, but the veterinarian had heard of several cases in the area."

Earlier this year, a neighbor's dogs suffered snoots full of quills from a close encounter with a porcupine, and a road-kill porcupine turned up in the area, Waybright said.

"We've been getting scattered reports of porcupines in the area for the last few years," said Craig Stihler, a DNR wildlife biologist specializing in non-game wildlife. "We've had several instances of dogs coming to veterinary offices with quills in their faces, and we've had a few road-kill incidents, including one near Elkins."

Until porcupines began turning up in West Virginia in recent years, the animals apparently had been absent for more than a century.

"As best we can tell, they were here in some of our higher-elevation forests, but gone about the time of early settlement" and the start of wide-scale deforestation, said Chris Ryan, a DNR wildlife biologist based in Charleston.

According to an article in the 1879 "Proceedings of the United States National Museum," by G. Brown Goode, then the museum's assistant director, a live porcupine captured near Terra Alta, Preston County, was acquired by the museum that year. "It is believed to be the most southern occurrence of the species" at the time, Goode wrote.

Stihler said the presence of porcupine pellets and remains in West Virginia caves add to the animal's status as a native species.

Fossils of an extinct species of porcupine known as coendou intermedia, dating back 500,000 years, have been excavated from West Virginia caves.

Adult porcupines range from 2 to 3 feet in height, and weigh between 12 and 35 pounds. The animal has black to brownish-yellow fur and up to 30,000 quills across its body, except for its belly and a portion of its face.

While the porcupine does not throw quills, when attacked it will turn its back on an attacker, raise its quills and lash out with its tail. Porcupines are mostly nocturnal, but will forage for food during the day.

Porcupines are good tree climbers and swimmers, and are quite vocal, making a variety of grunts, groans, coughs and wails.

While an old joke holds that the answer to the question of how porcupines mate is "very carefully," the mating process is much less restrained in real life. According to the website of Nature Works, a show from New Hampshire Public Television, the porcupine mating ritual includes frequent, noisy fighting by males over females, followed by an elaborate mating dance by males that culminates in the spraying of urine over the heads of desired females.

The only animal other than the mountain lion known to be a natural predator of the porcupine is the fisher, another mammal that once was forced to leave West Virginia but was re-established by a successful program that began in 1969.

"We have a fisher exhibit here," said Thorn, the head of the West Virginia Wildlife Center, which displays wildlife native to, or once native to, West Virginia. "I've put the word out that, if anyone comes across a porcupine, we'd like to exhibit it here, too."

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.


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