Virginia Black Bears Are Losing Their Fur at an Alarming Rate: Here’s Why

by Sean Griffin
(Photo by Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Black bears across the state of Virginia have been stricken with a disease called mange at an alarming range. The disease leaves the bears with patches of their typically thick fur rubbed off and scabs and sores across their bodies.

The disease has been spreading among more bears and to a larger geographic area recently, according to the Washington Post.

Wildlife officials said the disease is caused by mites. Mange has shown up more frequently this year in black bears. It’s been previously spotted in the state but has now recently spread to other areas across the state. Researchers aren’t exactly sure what’s causing the uptick in spread.

For years, Virginia wildlife officials received reports of a few mange cases in bears here and there. They were located in Frederick and Shenandoah counties. However, since 2018, there’s been an increase in the “frequency and geographic spread” of the disease in the state’s black bear population. An estimated 18,000 black bears call Virginia home.

Officials said this fall that they continue getting reports of more black bears with mange. Now over 18 counties, mostly in the northwestern part of the state, have reported these cases.

Since 2018, there have been around 120 to 150 reports of mangy bears in Virginia each year.

“We don’t know why bears have become so susceptible to it,” said Katie Martin, a deer, bear and turkey biologist for the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources.

She said mange impacts other animals, such as foxes and coyotes. However, there hasn’t been an increase among those populations.

Mange, especially cases of “severe infestation, ” affects bears greatly. They become emaciated because they’re so itchy from the mites that they’ll stop eating and then die of starvation, according to Martin.

Bad cases can also result in bears getting open wounds from scratching their bodies.

Some bears will ease their itches by scratching themselves against trees, rocks, and structures.

Wildlife Experts Speak About Recent Uptick in Cases of Mange in Black Bears

“It’s not a pleasant thing to have,” Martin said. “They go through a miserable period of scratching.”

Wildlife experts are doing more research to try to understand what’s causing the spike in cases.

The tiny mites that cause mange are so small they can only be seen under a microscope. The bear loses most of its fur in the process of getting bad cases of mange.

Martin described how the public reports most of the cases.

“There’s probably more than that on the landscape, but we just don’t see them,” Martin said.

In Pennsylvania, wildlife experts have seen mange among their bear population for three decades. Next door, in Maryland and West Virginia, mange has resided for 5-10 years.

However, Virginia wildlife officials said the increase doesn’t seem to be hurting black bear population.