Kari Eneas remembers the last time she saw a porcupine like it was yesterday.
It was 2011, about this time of year, and she was working on a fence near Pablo when she saw something waddle by out of the corner of her eye. Eneas, a wildlife biologist for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and a colleague stopped what they were doing to inspect.
“We didn’t know what it was at first, so we wandered over and saw that it was a porcupine,” she said. “It was slowly moving through the field and it didn’t care that we were there.”
At the time, Eneas didn’t think much about spotting the quilled rodent; after all, they’re native to western Montana. The animals usually weigh between 12 and 35 pounds, traditionally live in wooded areas, and are known for their sharp quills that keep predators away. They are the second-largest rodents on the continent after beavers, and each one can have upwards of 30,000 quills on its back.
But wildlife biologists say they have noticed fewer and fewer of their quilled friends in recent years in western Montana. Now, officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are asking people to report sightings of the animals so they can get a clearer idea of population figures.
“It’s one of the great ecological mysteries,” said Germaine White, education specialist for the CSKT.
Dale Becker, wildlife program manager for the CSKT, said there are several theories regarding why porcupines are disappearing, but few concrete facts. One possibility is that people have been killing the animals. Although porcupines generally mind their own business, their quills can create a lot of problems for a domestic animal like a dog that startles the wild rodent. During the middle part of the 20th century, loggers frequently killed “quill pigs” because they are known to damage trees.
Another possibility is that a healthy mountain lion population is targeting them.
“Mountain lions are one of the few creatures that have apparently figured out how to kill porcupines without getting hit with the quills by just flipping them over and eating them,” Becker said.
An unknown disease that has decimated the local porcupine population is also a possibility, but biologists say they have not found any evidence to confirm that.
Lastly, porcupines only have one or two babies at a time, meaning that if a large percentage of the population has been taken out, it could take years or decades to recover.
But Becker notes that those are just guesses. Without a firm grasp on porcupine numbers, it’s tough to study their decline. He said porcupine population data is limited.
“A lot of research done 30 or 40 years ago was focused on eagles or rare animals,” Becker said. “There’s not a lot of historic data because porcupines are not very high on the interesting animal research totem pole.”
But Eneas is now heading up an effort to change that. Whenever the tribal wildlife program receives a report of a porcupine, someone from that office heads out to look for it. So far this year, they’ve received two sightings and were able to confirm the existence of at least one porcupine, although they were unable to actually find it.
Eneas said she spent a day last week combing the area where one was spotted. She was searching for signs of the critter, anything from scat to quills. The presence of fresh scat confirmed that there’s still at least one porcupine roaming the Mission Valley.
Once biologists get a better idea of regional porcupine numbers, they’ll be able to launch a more formal study looking into their decline.
“Anytime there is a species in the ecosystem that isn’t doing well, it could mean that something else is going wrong on the landscape, and that’s why we need to look into what’s happening to the porcupines,” Eneas said.
Eneas’ effort to find Montana’s missing porcupines is just beginning, but she said she’s already starting to like the prickly woodland creatures.
“It’s sort of sad that I haven’t seen one in six years,” she said. “I hope I get to see one again soon.”