Last month, a year-old bear was sent from Bentonville to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro after it was discovered on a resident’s porch.
“It was just very lethargic and I guess was just laying around and was seen for a couple of days in a row, so she called the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and they decided that [the bear] was acting oddly, so they wanted to get it to us,” said Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach at the Wildlife Center.
Since then, the bear has been doing well. It does not appear to have any major injuries, at least none that are hampering her from walking and climbing, but she does need to gain weight.
Nicholson, who said he expects the bear will be able to be released in April, speculated that the bear may have been separated from her mother before she was able to find food for herself.
“This little bear should be denning with her mother, but she’s so thin; it’s likely that she got separated from her probably back in the fall sometime and just was having a hard time finding food on her own,” Nicholson said.
But in the time since, the Wildlife Center has found mites associated with mange, a disease that can be deadly in bears and other animals, in the small bear. She is set to receive a second treatment to make sure there are no remaining mites on her body.
According to Peach Van Wick, a wildlife research fellow at the Wildlife Center, mange can cause bears to starve to death because the bears’ metabolism accelerates in order to fight the disease.
“They can’t even consume enough calories to maintain their own body weight and fight off this disease,” Van Wick said.
Bears with mange also often wind up with hair loss because the bears scratch themselves in an effort to remove the mites, said Fred Frenzel, a district wildlife biologist with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
“[Mange is] a mite that burrows under [the bears’] skin and the mites live on the animal under their skin, burrowing around, feeding, reproducing, defecating, everything,” Frenzel said. “They’re an under-the-skin animal, which of course causes a lot of itching and irritation, so the animal scratches and digs.”
Some bears, Frenzel said, end up becoming mostly bald due to the disease.
If people notice a bear with those symptoms, Frenzel said they should contact the Wildlife Conflict Helpline at 855-571-9003.
And the disease can spread to dogs and a number of other animals, as well. Dogs are one of the natural hosts for the mites, along with foxes and coyotes, Frenzel said.
If dogs do wind up with the disease, Frenzel said, it “can be dealt with at a veterinarian, but it takes a fair amount of time and a reasonable expense, I’m sure, to be able to clear it up.”
Mange has become prevalent among black bears in northwestern Virginia, particularly in Frederick County, in recent years, although researchers are not yet sure why.
Frenzel said that mange has gone from all but nonexistent in bears just five years ago to becoming more common in the region. In 2014 and 2015, there were just four cases of the disease in the region; that number rose to 14 in 2016 before dropping to 10 in 2017.
“It seems to have started in western Frederick County, the first place we found some,” Frenzel said. “And now, we’re picking them up in Clarke, Shenandoah, Rockingham, Warren, Fauquier [and Loudoun counties].”
Although Frenzel said that the disease likely spread from West Virginia, it’s unclear to researchers why the disease has spread. The mites that spread mange, Frenzel said, have been around in the area for a long time.
“It’s the same species of mite that was already here,” Frenzel said. “So we don’t really know why this should make a difference.”
In addition to looking into why the disease has spread, the Wildlife Center has been looking into potentially less invasive treatments of the disease. Currently, bears with mange are either transported to a center for treatment or, in some cases, are euthanized because there are no facilities nearby with the resources to treat the bears.
So Van Wick has been looking into a possible oral medication that can be administered one time and prevent bears from becoming reinfected with the disease.
“It takes a lot of time and resources from a lot of different people whenever it comes to trapping and transporting an adult bear and then treating it and housing it until it’s ready to be released,” Van Wick said.
So far, she said, the results have been promising.
“We have two or three bears that we’ve just given that oral medication to and they have shown resolution of clinical signs,” Van Wick said. “So that’s still a very small sample size whenever you think about individual bears versus the population of bears that might be affected, but we are seeing some positive results.”