Study tracks the rise of mange in black bears

A small mite burrowing under the skin has given rise to a mange epidemic among many animals, including, most notably in Pennsylvania, black bears.

“It’s a disease that certainly caught our attention,” said Mark Ternent, wildlife biologist for the state Game Commission. “We’ve seen an increase in the number of cases and the distribution of cases in Pennsylvania in the past 20 years.”

Research projects have increased in recent years to determine how many black bears are affected and what the best remedy is. The state handles between 50 and 60 cases of severe mange each year, Ternent said.

A Penn State study, in partnership with the commission, studies survival rates of bears that have mange. Through the study, a sample of 36 bears will be fitted with radio collars and followed over the course of three years to determine if mange always leads to death or if they can recover on their own. In the sample, 12 bears have mange, 12 are healthy and 12 have mange but are given a treatment called Ivermectin, often used to help animals with parasites.

Hannah Greenberg, a Penn State graduate student majoring in entomology, began researching mange in animals through her research into the mite itself.

Even in its early stage, the study has shown that bears with mange tend to move less than healthy bears, Greenberg said. So far, with data still being compiled, the study has brought more questions than answers, she said.

The study tracks both healthy and affected bears to examine the differences between the two and their responses to treatment.

“It would be interesting to figure out why it’s been increasing or what’s changed in the mite,” Greenberg said.

Bears with mange have been documented throughout most of the western two-thirds of the state, Ternent said. However, it does not seem to be a “population-level effect” — yet.

“But we don’t want to find ourselves someday down the road where it becomes an issue and we would have failed to learn about that disease when we had the chance today,” Ternent said.

Mange in wild animals can be accelerated, in part, by people who feed them, according to the Game Commission. The disease spreads more easily when animals congregate in one location, Ternent said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where it’s completely gone from the landscape,” he said.

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