A Careful Appreciation of the Porcupine
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BY: Robert Earle Howells | JANUARY 22, 2024

A Careful Appreciation of the Porcupine

They’re big-appetite herbivores with powerful incisors similar to a beaver’s who favor a diet of tree bark, the sub-bark layer cambium, roots, and tubers.

In the pantheon of small Rocky Mountain mammals, the porcupine falls somewhere between the wee, squeaky pika foraging to the side of an alpine trail, and the raccoon raiding your garbage. Cute, but not too cute. Best avoided, but still kind of cool to encounter from a safe distance.

Will you? Porcupines are common enough around Big Sky to get a major creek and trail named for them, as everyone who has hiked or biked Porcupine Creek Trail knows. But the truth is, the North American porcupine is primarily a solitary night forager and lives much of its life up in the trees. They’re a bit elusive. “I spend a ton of time in the woods, but I rarely see them,” says Andrea Saari, cofounder of Big Sky Adventures & Tours. “It’s my dogs who have encounters. I see the aftermath— the vet bills.”

Maybe a more apt question is: Should you want to encounter a porcupine? To that we give a big, hearty, slightly qualified, yes.

That’s partly because they’re really darn cute. Sweet eyes, button nose, soft fur (yes, really). It’s also worth seeing porcupines because they’re fascinating examples of evolution. They’re big- appetite herbivores with powerful incisors similar to a beaver’s who favor a diet of tree bark, the sub-bark layer cambium, roots, and tubers. They were once blamed for causing forest loss, and in the dark days of the 1950s to the ’70s, voracious porcupines were the target of ill-advised eradication efforts.

Now, about those quills, all 30,000 of them per animal. You might not actually see them from a few yards off. When you behold a porcupine in full bushy grandeur, you’re seeing fur: a soft outer layer and a second layer for warmth. The quills, which are technically hollow hairs, lie underneath. Yes, they are incredibly sharp. No, porcupines can’t shoot them. But if you touch—or if you are a dog, sniff—a porcupine it will raise and swing its spiky weaponized tail and you’ll get a painful cluster of them in your hand or snout. Just ask Andrea’s dogs.

The quills are sharper than hypodermics, and they’re scaled and barbed like fish hooks. The quills break free of the animal upon impact, leaving a victim looking like a pin cushion. If you’re stuck, get to the ER. If it’s your pooch, get right to the vet. When quills break off inside of dogs, they can migrate for years through soft tissue, eventually endangering vital organs. If you’re way off the grid, you might want to start plucking with a Leatherman tool. Given the risks—which really should only involve our dumb canine friends— and the fact that porcupines don’t hibernate, a great way to observe them is from a chairlift adjacent to a pine forest in winter.

Doug Rand, a retired landscape architect from Gallatin Gateway, sees them fairly often eating trees around his home. He once encountered two angry porcupines in a face-off, both noses festooned with quills. “Pure agony for both.” The males fight with tooth and quill for dominance. The victor sprays the female with urine to mark her as betrothed. Doug, using a spade for a prod and staying well clear of the quills, herds them into a wooden box, and ushers them to the backcountry.

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