Game Commission: Mange in bears in Pennsylvania reaching epidemic rate

LANCASTER, Pa. — Over a lifetime, some Lancaster County residents may have seen a fox with mange. Hunters may have glimpsed an infected coyote. It’s a horrible sight with clumps of hair missing from the beautiful animals.

Now, unfortunately, the scourge of mange has spread to bears, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission recently declared that the highly contagious disease has reached epidemic proportions in the state’s population.

Though mange can and does kill bears, the Game Commission says there is no evidence that populations are declining because of it. Still, bears increasingly susceptible to mange in Pennsylvania suffer in the wild, and the Game Commission feels the time has come to know more – it has launched an extensive study along with Penn State.

The capturing of 36 bears around the state has already begun. Each will be fitted with radio collars so they can be tracked for two years and studied by a group of biologists, immunologists and entomologists from Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

One group will be normal, healthy bears. A second group will have moderate cases of mange and a third group will be bears with mange that will be treated with a medication widely used to treat animals with parasites.

Mange in bears is caused by microscopic mites that in all likelihood have adapted specifically to preying on bears. Sarcoptes mites can infect more than 100 types of wild and domestic mammals, including humans, in whom the affliction is known as scabies. Little is known about the specific type of sarcoptes mites that are infecting bears or how well bears resist mange.

Hunters who come in contact with bears with mange could get an itchy rash that lasts about 10 to 14 days. The tiny insects burrow under the skin and form tunnels where they reproduce and release more mites.

Potential findings

The study in bears hopefully will provide some clues as to why mange has become so widespread in the state’s bears. Ticks found on bears also will be studied to see if infestations lower a bear’s immune system and ability to fight off the disease.

Mange has long been present in bears, but usually in isolated cases. Traditionally, when bears get mites, they have an initial reaction but then the immune system fights off the parasites.

“But that doesn’t seem to be happening with sarcoptic mange in some bears in Pennsylvania,” notes Erika Machtinger, the study’s lead researcher and an assistant professor of entomology at Penn State. “And we need to find out why.”

Beginning in the early 1990s, mange became more common and has expanded through much of the state’s bear population since then.

Researchers want to know if mange is affecting denning and reproduction.

Mange is spread by bears coming in contact with each other or mites leaping from the host onto the ground or plants where they can survive for a while.

Feeding bears has long been illegal in Pennsylvania, and in light of the mange problem, it’s more important than ever for humans to not do things to congregate bears. That means discontinuing supplemental feeding of animals and securing garbage cans.

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