Where have the porcupines gone?

When I was younger I commonly saw porcupines in Idaho. I saw them on trees, I saw them on trails, I saw them on roads, they were common. But, I haven’t seen one since the mid nineties. Where did they go?

They seem to have disappeared and nobody is really noticing. Are they declining due to disease? Is this a natural population fluctuation? I find very little about the subject online and an article written by Bill Schneider in 2005 seems to ask the same question but has no answer.

According to an article in the Sacramento Bee, during 2011 only 14 live porcupines were seen by field personnel from various agencies in California.

It seems unlikely that habitat, predation, or over hunting is responsible. Disease seems most likely to be responsible for the decline but is anyone even looking?

What are your thoughts?






  1. jdubya Avatar

    we see porcupines up high in the trees of ski resorts as we glide by on the chairs. maybe the wolves has eaten them all.

  2. Mike Avatar

    The only porcupines I see out west are dead on the side of the road.

    They are incredibly easy to kill. I knew hunters in the U.P. who would shoot them whenever they saw them. The porcupines really can’t get away so it’s pretty easy.


    I think a site on the net might draw in some people that know more about it than we do @ this point.


    Concerning hunters, & easy to kill, I know some quill hunters that had a few quills jabbed in them for killing one instead of just throwing a blanket over it, (better way to get quills). Next year maybe get some more from same one…,oh yeah, & leave a little something, tobacco….whatever.

  5. Angus Avatar

    You ask an important question, Ken, and one that hopefully will prompt some non-profit to start a status review on the species. Who knows, our prickly little friends may actually be candidates for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

  6. Nancy Avatar

    Interesting Ken.

    I can’t recall the last time I saw a porcupine (even a dead one on the road) and I use to see them all the time around here.

    I know a lot people “in my neck of the woods” treated them like vermin – shoot on sight – because it doesn’t pay to be inquisitive if your a ranchdog, horse or cow, investigating that slow moving bundle of quills.

    A ranch I use to do some work on, about 3 years ago (a nice, little getaway every once in awhile for some west coast owners) suddenly developed problems with porcupines stripping their trees of bark and even getting into and stripping their shrubs around the house.

    The orders went out to “shoot on sight” but a few of the ranch hands had a problem with that since they thought the porcupines were so damn cute to watch.

    Skunks are shot often around here but maybe their numbers are still able to withstand the losses.

    With so much development in recent years (further and further into wild areas) and the fact that just about every homeowner seems to have a .22 on hand – in case there might be a pesky varmint hanging around – its quite possible their numbers have dwindled down to almost nothing because so many just don’t care enough about them and how they once were so abundant.

    1. Mike Avatar

      Nancy –

      Your neighbors sound horrible. This is one of the reasons I haven’t moved to a rural area out west. I just can’t deal with the idiots who get off on shooting animals for no real reason.

  7. Dusty2 Avatar

    East of Idaho Falls, in the foothills, we have a large number of porcupines. Their numbers fluctuate, and are on the increase the last few years. They do damage trees by feeding on the bark in the winter. Their numbers correlate inversely with the coyote numbers, which are very low now due to mange and hunters. (Which is also why the voles are way over populated)

  8. Frank Renn Avatar
    Frank Renn

    Porcupines winter in the river bottoms here in s.e. Idaho,easy to spot when the leaves are off the trees. See fewer and fewer every year. Last winter there was one in a Russian olive tree, when I returned a week later, it was in the same location. Some “fool” had shot it. My new pointer found one on the ground, hope she learned her lesson,ouch.

  9. Ken Cole Avatar

    The last one I remember hearing about, now that I think of it, was near West Yellowstone in about 2003. It was a road kill.

  10. Dan Avatar

    @ Ken

    You must be going to bed earlier. Getting older? Give up the wild night life?

    I think your anecdotal(thanks JB, I love this word now) observation may be more of a function of your wanderings or bedtime than our sticky little friend. I still see them here and there (mostly at night) and occasionally dead on the road.

    1. Ken Cole Avatar

      Yes, my observations are anecdotal, but I apparently am not alone. I get out just as much as I ever did but not as much in forested areas as I once did. That being said, during all of the time that I worked in central Idaho doing fisheries work in the last decade, I didn’t see a single porcupine or come across any obvious sign.

      I do remember seeing them fairly often around Cascade/McCall during the 70’s and 80’s but no more.

  11. David Stowe Avatar

    Ken, I have been wondering the same thing here in Central Oregon. I used to see porcupines on a regular basis, and now haven’t seen one in several years. I do see sign from time to time, but no actual porcupine. I’ve asked fish and wildlife guys, and they have no idea. I’d sure like to know what is going on.

  12. Great Basin Avatar
    Great Basin

    One evening I observed an eastbound porcupine crossing HWY. 93 about halfway between Mackay and Challis, ID. in June 2008. I Worked several years in Central Idaho performing trail work thereafter and observed their sign occasionally, but had no other visual sightings.

  13. CodyCoyote Avatar

    I rarely see live Porkies these days , but there are still noticeable numbers of them as roadkill in places you might not expect to find them here in northwestern Wyoming , on paved highways near cultivated croplands with lots of adjacent trees and cover. It might be worth doing some informal polling of veterinarians who in years’ past had to treat dogs that got involved with porcupines , to see if relative numbers are down in the shop.

    It used to be easy to tell if pocupines were using an area from the ” blazes” they left on trees about 3-7 feet off the ground where they ate the bark. I don’t think I’ve seen much of that in recent years.

  14. Jeff Avatar

    They are fairly common here in Jackson Hole, I’ve seen quite a few in the river bottoms as well as high up from the ski lifts.

  15. Savebears Avatar

    I saw two of them this weekend in Northern Idaho and regularly see them around the house, they love to eat the hydraulic lines on heavy equipment, they will also eat the vinyl off the seats, and the rubber hoses on brakes. There is sign around the NF fork, you just have to be paying attention and looking.

  16. Robert R Avatar
    Robert R

    There are several strikes against a porcupine with rural people, ranchers, agriculture. Basically anyone who owns livestock, pets ect. Anyone who has had a domestic animal with quills in them, for the most part eliminates the porcupine on site.
    A porcupine is the equivalent of the rattle snake because a lot of people fear them but don’t understand why they even exist.
    For the most part porcupines are nocturnal and generally only seen in early morning and evening hours. I know where they hide and have seen my share of new bourn porcupines.
    They have numerous Predators including man, Fisher, Marten, American Mink, Wolverine, Mountain Lion, Canada Lynx, and Bobcat.
    A porcupine is very easy to catch by picking them up by the hind leg and all a predator has to do is get at there quilless under side.

  17. Larry Thorngren Avatar

    I took my grandson to the porcupine races in Council, Idaho on July 4th. There were 18 porcupines entered in the competition. It would seem that the people in Council do not have any trouble finding porcupines.
    The races were pretty funny with two guides for each porcupine. One holding the garbage can the porcupine started from and one guiding the porcupine gently with a broom.
    I didn’t see any porcupines mistreated and they were released back into the wild right after the race.
    Each porcupine seemed to have a distinct personality which ranged from impossible to guide,to mild and cooperative and easy to direct to the finish line.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Each porcupine seemed to have a distinct personality which ranged from impossible to guide,to mild and cooperative and easy to direct to the finish line”

      The “mild, cooperative and easy to direct” could quite possibly be pocupines that have been thru the routine before 🙂

      1. Larry Thorngren Avatar

        Actually the most cooperative porcupines were the young smaller ones. The largest porcupines simply bristled up and swatted their tails at their handlers. I am sure that some of the handlers had practiced with their porcupines. Many of the handlers were teenagers and girls were well represented and did well.
        While some would find fault with porcupine races, I would much prefer this to hunting contests like they have on Marmots in Bliss, Idaho.
        People protect what they know and there were hundreds of spectators in Council and everyone seemed to enjoy seeing the porcupines before and during the races. After watching cute teenage girls working with their porcupines and feeding them apples and carrots, it would be hard to think of porcupines as something dangerous that should be shot on sight.

  18. Jeff N. Avatar
    Jeff N.

    Just returned from a trip to the Midwest and I actually saw a road killed porcupine on I-40 in the panhandle of Texas. I googled “do porcupines live in Texas and was surprised to learn that they actually do live in the western part of the state.

    I’ve also seen road killed porkies on the Navajo Reservtion in NE Arizona, usually near river bottoms where cottonwoods are abundant. I’ve never seen a live one in the aspen and conifer forests of eastern AZ, but they are there.

    Saw a live one in Banff, another roadkill in western SD, and ran over one in northern MN many years ago.

    1. jdubya Avatar

      maybe as the armadillos are moving north and west, porcupines are moving south and east…

  19. Dude, the bagman Avatar
    Dude, the bagman

    I’ve seen one (or the same one twice) around Banner Summit in the past couple of months. And a couple in other places during my many recent late-night drives on rural ID highways.

    Perhaps they’re getting faster/sneakier.

  20. SEAK Mossback Avatar
    SEAK Mossback

    We still have plenty around here. I have been curious whether they have increased on the island I live on because they slaughter a lot of 300+ year old hemlocks every year. Walking upslope in the spring, I notice many chewed much of the way around the base (some entirely), which causes a slow death as rot infiltrates. It does not seem sustainable and porcupines seldom bother our other major tree, Sitka spruce, so I take the fact that we still have a lot of large hemlock as likely evidence that pressure from porcupines has not always been so great. Spruce also emit massive quantities of pitch and heal from fairly large holes in their bark, unlike hemlocks that in this climate are generally infiltrated by rot before bark re-grows. I used to let it bother me to walk around and see all the otherwise healthy big hemlocks recently marked for death — now I just mark them myself, for the wood stove.

    We have no fishers and very few marten on the island (don’t have the specific vole species that seems to drive marten populations elsewhere in SE Alaska). Fishers have moved out of Canada to just across the channel in recent decades and a wildlife biologist friend found two fresh porcupine skins on the mainland with mustelid sign around, including scat, that he suspected was fisher.

    Generally, in this region nowadays porcupines are not eaten (considered survival food), but I have a friend in his late-80s who hunted and ate them as a kid, and has a high opinion of porcupine meat. He recently told a story of shooting two porcupines up a steep slope on Mt. Roberts behind Juneau, probably in the late-1930s, tying both to a rope and dragging them down behind him. They overtook him and he ended up in the doctor’s office getting quills extracted from his nether regions. I’m afraid I would have no appetite for them after repeatedly shoveling and sweeping a year’s supply of their wet, moldy poop off my bunk and cooking counter in a wall tent frame.

  21. topher Avatar

    Near Pocatello I see plenty of porcupines.Usually up Mink Creek near dark.The last one I saw was in a small Russian Olive near Gifford Springs on the North side of the Snake River. There aren’t many trees on this part of the river other than juniper and it struck me as an odd place for a porcupine to hang out.In the same area I often see leopard lizards, horned toads and rattle snakes.

  22. Leslie Avatar

    I did a post on my blog on this a year ago. I’ve seen no porcupines nor their sign since I’ve been here 6 years. A resident whose lived here since the 50’s said there used to be a lot of porcupines around Sunlight/Crandall area and the forest service made a concentrated effort to kill because they were eating the trees. (which of course is what they eat!) Recently I saw a road kill outside of Cody. I certainly thought that was strange as it’s all fields and desert around there. Last week the Game warden said his mule got into one in a drainage around here. That made me wonder if there are natural fluctuations in their populations since they are rodents. http://thehumanfootprint.wordpress.com/2011/01/14/i-miss-the-porcupines/

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Speaking of rodent fluctuations Leslie – I’m seeing a lot more hares, road kill and otherwise, this year.

      They are usually very abundant in the winter around here but I seldom see them come spring or summer unless you stumbled on one in the sagebrush.

      Have to wonder if the “salting” of the highways with magnesium chloride (which wasn’t a practice a few years ago) might be attracting them.

      Properties of Magnesium Chloride. Magnesium Chloride is an inorganic salt, which has the chemical formula of MgCl2 and molecular weight 95.210 g/mol.

      Or maybe TOO many predators (coyotes, badgers, foxes) have been killed off and this is the end result

      1. elk275 Avatar

        Or maybe Nancy it is upswing in the population of bunnies. Are these snowshoes hares or Jackrabbits?

        1. Nancy Avatar

          I believe they are snowshoes Elk. White in the winter?

  23. Leslie Avatar

    Nancy, here in the bighorn basin the jackrabbits and cottontails numbers are way down. It seems that not only are rabbit populations cyclical, but no one knows why. One theory suggests that plants build up toxins that kill off the rabbits and it takes time for the resistant rabbits to repopulate. Although where I live at 6800′ the cottontail population is way down, I see that the snowshoe hare population is growing. Maybe due to wolves in the area keeping the coyote population down.

    What I didn’t know but just found out was that porcupines have only one young. That makes it hard to repopulate quickly.


Ken Cole is a 5th generation Idahoan, an avid fly fisherman, wildlife enthusiast, and photographer. He is the interim Idaho Director for Western Watersheds Project.

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