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Porcupines: Ignored, despised bark biters

A porcupine sits quietly in a tree north of Big Sand Lake. They generally live quietly in the woods and tend to blend in with the scenery. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Porcupines are fairly common throughout Hubbard County, whether you consider them a nuisance, a varmint or a somewhat placid appendage to a tree limb.

"They're food sources for some critters; entertainment for some folks who hunt them," said Tom Stursa, DNR wildlife technician.

The DNR has never counted them, says Katie Haws, DNR regional nongame specialist. They're simply commonplace.

A recent hunt organized by two local men harvested more than 200 porcupines in a day, said Park Rapids resident Jim Hinton. The pelts go to an organization that makes native crafts. Forty-two teams fanned out through the region for the single-day hunt.

"They're varmints," Hinton said. "We're doing the area a service. Dollar-wise, it's phenomenal what they can do to a forest."

Indeed, the bark eaters can decimate populations of trees.

Wayne Smetanka is a retired forester who spent a career with the U.S. Forest Service moving around the country. He retired to Lake Emma.

Years ago, he said forestry employees were armed and instructed to shoot porcupines, especially in forests of valuable yellow birch and black cherry trees.

"They can really cause some economic damage," he said. He doubts the practices are still in place, as they are controversial.

Because porcupines are slow moving, they're easy targets.

"The popular misconception is that they shoot their needles out at predators," Smetanka said. "They don't unless a dog gets right up on them."

Haws said the animals like red pines and since there is an abundant forest of them, she doesn't see a major economic impact from their nibbling.

And unless dogs or hunters flush them out, they'll just continue their quiet existence in the woods.