Wisconsin offers porcupine education

Porcupine up a tree by mtsofan / John

An outdoor center in central Wisconsin is offering what I think may be the country’s only class on porcupines. The Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center, is letting people come see their porcupine study on Feb. 5, 9 -2.

The Sandhill Outdoor Skills Center has been studying local porcupine for 15 years with the help of local high school students, says Britt Searles, natural resources educator. The students track and trap the porcupines in the winter when they’re denning and easier to spot on the leaf-less trees.

“A lot of times if you are scanning a forest, they’ll look like a blob. A lot of time people mistake them for squirrel nests,” she says. But squirrel nests are near the trunk and “porcupines can be out on a tiny little branch way out on the end.”

The porcupines keep warm by denning in winter, but don’t hibernate, she says. They come out regularly to eat on oak or pine trees–often leaving a well-worn trail between their den and a favorite tree or two.

Hinterland Who's Who Map of North America porcupine range

The study started to see if porcupines (Erethizon dorsatum) really do damage trees as much as the local logging community feared. Answer: they damage trees right around their den, but only superficially. Porcupines are a lot less trouble than people think,  Searles says. They aren’t agressive; at most they will chatter their teeth or turn their back on you if you stumble on one.
“They’re hilarious,” she says. “They’re not flashy animals, they’re like little old men, scratching their bellies.”
The researchers trap adults in wire cages secured at the den entrance or leading off fences around trees. The solitary offspring–known adorably as a porcupet–can be easily picked up without much protest from its mother.

The team usually tracks about a dozen porcupines a season in half the fenced in skills center area–about 4,000 acres. The areas with the most delicious oak and pine trees attract many more porcupines. They also crave salt–so they gnaw on anything people have touched with our sweaty hands. Porcupine numbers are falling because an even more elusive animal–the fisher–is making a comeback.

Where to See Oddball Animals

Sign up for the class (or the one the center has on Sandhill cranes)

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