Virginia seeing an increase in mangy black bears

By  | 

WAYNESBORO, Va. (CBS19 NEWS) -- Over the last couple of years, the number of black bears with mange has continued to rise in Virginia.

The first cases of mange in black bears in Virginia were found in the 1980s.

Sarcoptic mange is a parasitic disease that allows sarcoptic mites to bury underneath the skin, causing an extreme inflammatory immune response to the animal.

Infected bears physically can't eat enough to consume enough calories to help sustain themselves while also fighting off the disease.

Peach Van Wick is a veterinary research fellow at The Wildlife Center of Virginia.

"It's not necessarily the mite itself that ends up causing extreme disease and even death in these animals," she said. "It's all the things that come along with it."

Mange isn't anything new to Virginian black bears but the numbers have been on the rise the last few years.

In 2015, there were two confirmed cases in the state, both of them in Frederick County.

"This past year, we have had confirmed reports in six more counties and the number of confirmed reports is already up to 17 for the year," said Jamie Sajecki, black bear project leader for the Virginia Game and Inland Fishery.

Researchers don't know how bears are getting the disease in the first place. However, there's a much larger outbreak in Pennsylvania that has been spreading into Virginia.

Northern Virginia is seeing the largest outbreak, including Shenandoah, Frederick and Warren counties.

Researchers don't know why the increase is happening now or why some bears are more susceptible.

"Mange has been around in different species for hundreds of years, so why is it now affecting bears," asked Van Wick. "Is it something about the bear that's changing, something about the mite that's changing? That's not really known right now."

When it comes to the Shenandoah National Park, officials typically do not intervene in cases of mange in the black bear population.

The park had just one suspected case of mange this summer in a bear that was frequently seen between mile markers 52 and 54.

"Sarcoptic mange in black bears is caused by a native parasite. National Park Service policy states that we are to let natural processes prevail," said Rolf Gubler, a wildlife biologist for Shenandoah National Park.

The Wildlife Center and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries take a different approach by catching some of the bears and administering treatment.

Recently, the Wildlife Center has been using a different form of treatment than years passed, which was actually first developed for flea and tick prevention in dogs and cats.

"It's shown to be efficient against the sarcoptic mite as well and we actually have a couple of successful cases now that we've treated with that one-time oral medication and released those animals," said Van Wick.

For the public, if you see a bear with suspected mange in the wild while hunting or hiking, the best course of action to take is to contact the Wildlife Center or VDGIF.