HARRISBURG - After lifting a ban on porcupine hunting, the Pennsylvania Game Commission ran into a thorny problem: reports of a new black market for the rodents' meat in Southeast Asia.
Intelligence reports indicated that people were seeking Pennsylvania porcupines to sell illegally for human consumption in Vietnam, commission officials said.
The eight-member commission responded last week by reversing course and ending a nine-month-old policy of virtually unlimited porcupine hunting during most of the year. Instead, it voted to impose a limit of 10 porcupines per hunter per year. The original limit had been six per day.
Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser said that he could not comment on specifics of any investigation resulting in the change, but that no known porcupine trading was taking place.
The new limit, Feaser said, makes clear that the goal of a porcupine season was not to open the door to mass hunting, but to expand a homeowner's right to shoot nuisance porcupines.
Porcupines, the second-largest rodents after the beaver, are shy, nocturnal creatures attracted to wood, rubber, and metal, making house siding and automobile engine belts attractive to them.
Personal experience figured in the commission's decision in April to create the season. One commissioner said his brother's telephone wires had to be replaced twice after gnawing by porcupines. Another said half the screen door on his hunting cabin had been destroyed.
No studies on population, geographical range, or damage preceded the decision, which allowed hunting of porcupines between September and April 1, allowing the creatures to raise their young in spring and summer. No figures are available for the number of porcupines bagged since September.
Pennsylvania law has long let homeowners kill porcupines that destroy property. Instituting a season, officials said, was meant to "eliminate the gray area" and give owners more leeway to kill troublesome porcupines not on their land.
It is illegal to sell meat of any wild game killed in Pennsylvania, but legal to sell nonedible animal parts such as porcupine quills - used in American Indian art.
Commissioners said that when they voted last spring to create the season, they did not envision opening the door to a black market on porcupines.
"We looked at the market for porcupine quills in Native American art and didn't think it was a big problem, but further research shows a market for meat in the Far East," said Game Commission President Ralph Martone.
A thriving global market for wild animals' parts - used for meat, aphrodisiacs, or artwork - has decimated many species. In Israel, where the porcupine is a protected species and its meat is a delicacy, a lucrative market in illegal sales has all but eliminated the rodent in some areas.
Sarah Speed, Pennsylvania director for the Humane Society of the United States, was among those who opposed the commission's decision last year, contending a season for porcupines would encourage poaching. Last week, she and others applauded the commission's setting of the new limit, but said there should be a moratorium until scientists studied the porcupine population and geographic range. "They should be a protected species," Speed said, "until the Game Commission does its homework."
John Hadidian, senior scientist at the humane society, said there was no evidence a hunting season was warranted. "This confirms our fears that once you open the floodgates, the water comes in," he said. "Let's close it down and look at why this benign rodent who lives in the forest was being hunted in the first place."
Feaser said the commission, which expects to formalize its porcupine policy in April, will start collecting data on the rodent in its annual statewide game survey.