The sudden and rapid increase in cases of mange amongst black bears in the state of Virginia has biologists struggling to find answers.
Recent cases of bear mange in Virginia have been severe and often times deadly. David Kocka, a wildlife biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources says researchers have more questions than answers at this point.
“Why all of a sudden we’re seeing bears picking up and retaining and being infested by these mites, we don’t really know. There’s a lot we really don’t know about it, that’s the bottom line.”
Mange is a skin disease caused by mites that burrow into an animals skin and lay eggs. Due to the extremely itchy nature of the infection, many bears will literally scratch all their hair off. As the disease progresses, the bears become quite weak and very ill.
“They just look in pathetic shape. What we see is when they get to a certain stage where they’re so unhappy with life, they feel so horrible that it’s like they’re losing their minds.
They’ll crawl into somebody’s doghouse and stay there for a couple days, or they’ll crawl under their deck, or in a garage.”
According to Charlottesville Tomorrow, the first documented case of mange in a Virginia black bear occurred in the mid-1990s, but cases remained relatively rare until about 3-years ago.
Since then, cases have surged. There have been no formal studies on how the disease is impacting bear populations, but its clear that the disease is spreading rapidly and more and more bears are coming down with the mite infestations.
Near Shenandoah National Park, roughly two thirds of the phone calls made to the state wildlife assistance line have been regarding reports of bears severely disfigured by mange. In the area surrounding Charlottesville, roughly a third of the calls have been about similar reports.
Kocka also said that last year a bear was euthanized within Charlottesville city limits because it was displaying tell-tale signs of mange.
“I was contacted by one of our conservation police officers, who in turn had been contacted by the Charlottesville Police Department concerning a bear they had been tracking for some time, and it was suspected to have a case of mange.
Bears often enter and exit cities such as Charlottesville, Staunton and Harrisonburg and that does not generally elicit a response by us.
However, one with mange is a concern because people and pets are susceptible to the mites that cause mange.”
Mange is treatable, especially with cats and dogs. Initially the state Department of Wildlife Services contracted veterinarians to treat mangy bears, however with the recent surges, state wildlife officials have been instructed to euthanize any and all bears with symptoms.
Today there are believed to be as many as 6,000 black bears roaming the state says Alex Wehrung, the outreach coordinator for The Wildlife Center of Virginia. The center had made previous attempt to treat infected bears, but have stopped doing so in accordance with state protocols.
“They are really thriving. As far as I know, there are more black bears in Virginia than there ever have been, since we started keeping track.”
The growing bear population is believed to be a primary driver behind the mange infections, as bears come into contact with each other more frequently, especially in areas marked by human development.
Wehrung says the best thing people can do to help alleviate the mange outbreak is take down bird feeders, which often draw multiple hungry bears into close contact with one another.
“Bears are omnivores, they eat pretty much everything.
They’ll eat bird seed, your pet’s food, your garbage. And when there are food sources out like that that multiple bears go to, that increases the chance that they will catch the mites there.
The best thing people can do to slow the spread of mange is to take down your bird feeder, move your garbage into the garage, and take your pet’s food inside.”
Absolutely heartbreaking… hopefully Virginia wildlife officials can remedy the situation soon.