If there’s anything that gives Rod Burns the willies, this is it.
A wildlife conservation officer with the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Armstrong County, he occasionally finds himself dealing with nuisance bears, ones that have gotten into trouble around people. That’s something he can handle.
What’s freaky are the bears with mange, a disease caused by microscopic mites. They burrow under the skin, leaving tunnels filled with eggs, dead skin and feces, said Mark Ternent, the commission’s bear biologist. Animals with mange typically lose their hair and develop severe itching, scabs and lesions. If it gets bad enough, the animals die.
Commission officers who come across such an animal with more than 50 percent of its hair vaccinate it. If it has less than 50 percent, they euthanize it.
Either way, the job is unsettling, Burns admits.
“It does give you the heebie-jeebies. You can’t see the mites, but you know they’re there, so when you work with one of these bears you’re itching the rest of the day,” he said.
Pa. Game Commission
An increasing number of black bears across Pennsylvania have been showing up with mange, according to the Game Commission. It’s a skin disease caused by microscopic mites that causes hair loss, among other things.
It’s something officers are dealing with more than ever. Mange cases are on the upswing statewide, with officers having to put down 50 or so bears a year, Ternent said.
No one yet knows why.
“We have seen an increasing trend in mange, but the bear population has been growing, too. What we’ve never been able to determine is whether the increase in mange is simply paralleling the increase in the population, or if there’s something else going on out there,” Ternent said.
The commission is seeking answers.
It’s sending samples from freshly euthanized bears to a graduate student at Georgia. She is looking at three things: which class of mites is involved; what kind of field testing — of hair, blood, tissue, scat or something else — might most accurately detect mites on a bear; and the persistence of mites in the environment. Answering that last question will tell the commission how long mites survive on a carcass that has been discarded and how long a trap used to catch a mangy bears is contagious.
The disease is not so prevalent as to be impacting the statewide bear population, Ternent said. But it could prove to be an issue in local “hot spots,” he added.
In Lycoming County, for example, officer Harold Cole said he dealt with numerous mangy bears in the Pine Creek Valley. Several “had almost no hair, gray scabby skin, almost a total loss of muscle mass, and often were stumbling and not aware of their surroundings,” he said.
Potter County officer Mark Fair said he sees few bears with mange in remote areas. It’s more common in camp communities and residential areas, where bears apparently pass the mites around when congregating around birdfeeders and other unnatural food sources.
Chances are a few hunters will see, and maybe even shoot, mangy bears this fall.
Hunters kill about 3,300 bears in Pennsylvania annually, Ternent said. Typically, 10 to 12 exhibit signs of mange.
He encouraged hunters who shoot such a bear to bring it to a check station like they would a healthy animal, to get a new tag and help in the search for answers.
“What we don’t want it them to be left in the woods because then we don’t learn anything from them,” Ternent said. “We’re trying to document what’s going on.”
This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.
Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.
Mange and people
It’s not just black bears that get mange. Coyotes, foxes and other animals do, too, including pets.
Humans are not impacted by the disease the same way animals are, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
No treatment is necessary, it added, though sometimes an anti-itch regiment is prescribed.
— Bob Frye