HARRISBURG, Pa. — Neither sleek nor fast nor majestic, they are the couch potatoes of the wild. Heavy-bodied, short-legged, half-deaf and nearly blind, they sleep in treetops and dine on bark.
One feature, of course, distinguishes them: the mass of quills that forms their formidable armor. The quills can be lethal to predators such as foxes and coyotes, and to curious dogs.
But in Pennsylvania, the porcupine may have to contend with a whole new class of predator.
The state Game Commission on Tuesday is poised to declare "open season" on porcupines.
That means they can be hunted anytime, anywhere.
"We want to make it clear that people can control them where they are causing damage," said commission member Dave Putnam.
He said the panel is acting in response to several complaints about property damage in remote areas of the state. "My main objective is to make it clear that you are allowed to harvest them."
For 30 years, the state's second-largest rodent (behind the beaver) has enjoyed "protected" status — meaning it cannot be hunted legally. Property owners, though, have always been allowed to kill porcupines that are damaging their property.
And damage is something porcupines do. Lured by attraction to wood, rubber and salt, they have been known to gnaw on cabin siding, telephone wires and brake lines — or to fatally "girdle" the bark off a tree.
Putnam says that because the law does not define the boundaries of where a porcupine can be legally shot, an open season would eliminate confusion.
The commission's plan has raised the ire of biologists who say it is irresponsible to allow indiscriminate hunting without first gathering porcupine population data. It has also puzzled some hunters who ask: What kind of sport is hunting a clumsy creature whose top speed is 2 m.p.h.?
Or as one outdoorsman opined in an online chat room: "I don't quite feel comfortable hunting for an animal that you can walk right up to and poke with a stick."
John Hadidian, director of urban wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States, said the state commission's action appeared hasty and "verging on unethical."
"It's ridiculous," Hadidian said. "When you do wildlife-damage management, you have to have justification — and they have done none of the necessary research to determine the extent of the problem or ways to address the problem."
Porcupines are native to Pennsylvania, and their range extends largely across the northern tier of the state. Naturalists say these voracious herbivores play a role in the state's ecosystem — by clearing treetops in dense forests, thus allowing in sunlight that promotes growth and nurtures habitats on the forest floor.
Putnam said sightings of dead porcupines suggest their range has expanded southward — though an informal survey of several nature centers turned up no reports of sightings in the Philadelphia area.
A wildlife rehabilitator near State College, surrounded by central Pennsylvania woodlands, said the only porcupine she had ever seen in the wild was roadkill. Robyn Graboski, of Centre Wildlife Care, said she could recall only two or three porcupine rescues in 23 years of treating sick or orphaned animals.
Game commission officials say no studies have been done or data collected to gauge porcupine population density or reproductive habits. By comparison, the agency collected 15 years of data before legalizing the trapping of bobcats in 2003.
Putnam acknowledged the scarcity of porcupine complaints and lack of data — but said the agency would collect information after a season is instituted.
"We don't get a lot of calls," he said, "but they can cause tens of thousands in damage to a cabin and considerable damage to vehicle brake lines."
Some naturalists say porcupines' low birthrate — averaging one to three pups (or "porcupettes") per season — as well as susceptibility to parasites, and a high mortality rate on highways, are reasons not to hunt them.
According to records provided by the state commission to the national Humane Society, four of 16 porcupine reports between 2006 and 2010 involved property damage. The rest were mere sightings, or reports of wildlife injured by quills.
The game commission's website notes that "although porcupines kill a few trees by girdling, most authorities agree the damage they cause over large areas is generally insignificant."
Sarah Speed, the Humane Society's Pennsylvania state director, testified before the commission in January, saying her group was "deeply concerned" about the proposal and asked for further study to determine why a hunting season was necessary.
The thought of "hunting" such prey has some sportsmen scratching their heads.
"You wouldn't so much track a porcupine as bump into it," said Tom Leete, 88, who has spent most of his life logging and hunting in the forests of Potter County. "I consider hunting a sport, and that's not my idea of a sport."
Leete, in a phone interview, said he once shot three porcupines that were damaging hemlock trees on his property. But he said encountering them is a rarity.
His wife, Shirlee, chimed in, "They're a nuisance when you run over them." Leete added: "She got two flat tires."
If the commission votes Tuesday to lift the "protected" status, porcupines would join the ranks of opossums, skunks, weasels, coyotes, and groundhogs, as well as starlings and English sparrows, that can be shot year-round in Pennsylvania.
Among neighboring states, porcupines are protected in Maryland — but not New York and New Jersey.
The Humane Society's Speed warned of an ill-advised increase in residents' injuring or killing the animals.
A market exists for porcupine quills and claws — as evidenced by sellers who offer them on eBay. The items are used in jewelry-making; porcupine hairs also turn up in fly-fishing ties.
"Right now there is a flourishing black market for poached animals, so the infrastructure is in place for funneling pieces of wildlife that are legal," Speed said. "It should give people pause that Pennsylvania wildlife, like porcupines, could be killed for the profit motives of a few."
For his part, Putnam said he did not think an open season would threaten the species.
"If we thought people have a vendetta against porcupines, we wouldn't do it," he said. "No question, some people will shoot them because they can shoot them, but we don't expect a significant dent in the population."
Class: Mammal. The porcupine is the second-largest rodent in North America, after the beaver.
Diet: Herbivore. Prefers tree bark and salt.
Average life span in the wild: Five to seven years.
Size: Head and body, 25 to 36 inches; tail, 8 to 10 inches.
Weight: 12 to 35 pounds.
Number of quills: 30,000 or more per porcupine.
Average number of young per pregnancy: One. The young, known as pups or porcupettes, are born with soft quills that harden within an hour.
SOURCE: National Geographic; National Park Service; Pennsylvania Game Commission.