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Black bears in Virginia are itchy and losing fur as mange spikes

Mange, a highly contagious skin disease, is showing up more frequently and in a bigger area as it hits 18 counties in Virginia

A black bear in Virginia has lost fur due to mange, an itchy skin disease. (Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)
correction

A previous version of this article misstated the number of bears with mange in Virginia and the mangy bear situation in Maryland and West Virginia. Since 2018, there have been approximately 120 to 150 reports of mangy bears each year in Virginia. The disease has been seen in bears in Maryland and West Virginia over the past five to 10 years. The article has been corrected.

With patches of their normally thick fur rubbed-off and scabs and scratches on their large bodies, black bears in Virginia are suffering from a highly contagious and itchy skin disease that’s spreading among more bears and to a larger geographic area in the state.

Wildlife officials said the disease, known as mange, is caused by mites and is showing up more frequently this year in black bears. It’s been previously spotted in the state but has only recently started to spread to more areas in the commonwealth. Experts said they are not sure what’s causing this uptick.

For years, Virginia wildlife officials received reports of sporadic mange cases in bears in Frederick and Shenandoah counties. But since 2018, there has been an increase in the “frequency and geographic spread” of the disease in the state’s black bear population, which numbers about 18,000.

Officials said this fall that they are getting reports of more bears with mange in 18 counties, mostly in the northwestern part of the state. Black-bear mange cases have also been reported in Warren, Loudoun, Prince William, Culpeper and Fauquier counties. Officials said that since 2018, there have been approximately 120 to 150 reports of mangy bears in the state each year.

“We don’t know why bears have become so susceptible to it,” said Katie Martin, a deer, bear and turkey biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources. She said mange can impact other wildlife such as coyotes and foxes, but there hasn’t been an increase in cases among those animals.

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Mange makes bears look awful. Some with “severe infestation” become emaciated because they’re so itchy from the mites that they stop eating and eventually die of starvation, Martin said.

Bears can scratch so much that they get open wounds, which, if infected, can cause illness and death, experts said. Others get a mild case of mange, go through an itchy spell and survive.

Some bears will ease their itches by scratching themselves against buildings, trees or large rocks.

“It’s not a pleasant thing to have,” Martin said. “They go through a miserable period of scratching.”

Wildlife experts are doing more research to try to understand what’s causing the spike in cases.

Mange is caused by tiny mites — so small they can only be seen under a microscope — that burrow under the skin and cause itchiness. Typically, the skin gets crusty and the bear loses its fur.

Wildlife authorities said they know about mange cases primarily from the public — people who send photos they’ve taken of scratching bears they’ve spotted.

“There’s probably more than that on the landscape, but we just don’t see them,” Martin said.

In Pennsylvania, wildlife experts have seen mange among their bear population for three decades, and in Maryland and West Virginia, there has been evidence of bears with mange over the past five to 10 years, according to Martin.

Still, Virginia wildlife officials said there’s no evidence that the increase in mange is reducing the bear population in any states where it has been found.

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Martin said it’s sad to see bears with their fur rubbed-off, but trying to treat a mangy wild bear is difficult. The bear would have to be captured and held in captivity, and there’s really no effective treatment to fully get rid of mange in wild bears.

At the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, mangy black bears were treated in a two-year trial experiment in 2017. Experts said that while they had “hair regrowth and resolution of skin abnormalities,” once they were released back to their home range, the majority of these bears became re-infested with mange, according to a statement from Virginia’s wildlife department.

Experts advise people to avoid putting out bait piles, bird feeders or garbage cans; although bears are usually solitary animals, garbage cans and bird feeders will attract not just one bear but several. If they congregate and one has mange, it’s likely to spread.

If you see a mangy bear, take a photo and note your location — include GPS points if possible — and send it to the Virginia Wildlife Conflict helpline at vawildlifeconflict@usda.gov or call 855-571-9003.

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