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.