Few things cause more intense, persistent discomfort than chiggers, those miniscule mites that attach to your skin and bite, injecting saliva with enzymes that break down your skin cells for their dining pleasure.
I’ve endured a few episodes over the years, which makes me doubly sympathetic to Virginia’s black bears, many of which are suffering from sarcoptic mange. Virginia is in its second consecutive year of high numbers of bears afflicted with mange, a highly contagious skin disease, also caused by mites and affecting many wild and domestic mammals. In dogs, it’s sometimes called “canine scabies.”
The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources has documented 75 reports this year. Wildlife biologist Katie Martin says that number is “on par” with 2020’s total of 113 reports. She said it is likely conservative, reflecting only reports directly to DWR or the Wildlife Conflict Helpline (1-855-571-9003).
For context, Martin said that in the six years prior to 2020, Virginia recorded just 81 mange reports total.
With a black bear population estimated at 6,000 and rising, Virginia’s 2020 numbers equate to almost a 1-in-50 incidence of black bears with mange.
Unlike chiggers, the mites that cause mange burrow into skin and lay eggs. Infestations result in relentless itching, fur loss, dry skin, dandruff, red rash, lesions and skin irritation. Captured bears with the most severe cases are often euthanized.
Virginia’s first bear with mange was diagnosed in Rockingham County in 1994. Since 2014, reports have increased in number and geographic spread.
Martin said Virginia’s endemic mange is currently in the state’s northwest corner, especially Frederick, Shenandoah, Clarke and Warren counties, and extends south and eastward.
“Reports stayed fairly consistent to this northwest section from 2014-2017 but in 2018 began spreading farther south into Rockingham, Rappahannock and Albemarle, and in 2019 began spreading further east into Loudoun, Fauquier, and Greene,” Martin said. “Reports in 2020 and 2021 are still primarily in this 11-county area.”
So far, mangy bears that are captured are evenly distributed across sex and age with no clear pattern emerging, Martin said.
Neighboring states, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland, also are experiencing sarcoptic mange in black bears, Martin noted.
Black bear mange became news in 2018 when the disease surged in Pennsylvania, a state with an estimated 20,000 bears. That surge prompted research into medical treatments, disease spread and genetic factors that might hint if certain bears are more prone to the disease.
Stop the spread
A DWR fact paper states, “Mites can transfer to a new host when an unaffected animal comes into direct physical contact with an infested host. In addition, mites that fall off an infested host can persist in the environment and may infect a new animal that enters a site contaminated with mange mites.”
Areas where bears might congregate, such as garbage cans and dumps, bait piles and bird feeders, are places where one mangy bear can spread the misery to fellow bruins.
If mange infested bears are reported in the area, stop feeding pets outside or pick up uneaten food. Discontinue feeding birds, deer, feral cats, or other wildlife.
Move outside garbage or compost containers into a shed, garage, or other inaccessible location or prevent access with electric fencing.
For now, Virginia is responding to reports of bears with mange based on where the bear is located–an existing endemic area versus a new area–and its observed symptoms and neurologic condition.
Each bear is handled on a case-by-case basis.
One thing researchers are finding is that mange doesn’t seem to be an automatic death sentence for the bears, but it sure makes them miserable. Images of afflicted bears on back porches of homes or curled up in fetal positions are gut-wrenching.
Virginia’s black bear management plan is being updated. The current plan runs through this year. Not under discussion, however, are any changes to current bear hunting regulations to thin the population in response to the increasing mange.
For all things “black bear” in Virginia, visit DWR’s website at dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/bear/.
Martin asked for anyone seeing mangy bears—or other animals with mange—to report it to the Wildlife Conflict Helpline.
Callers able to get photos of the afflicted animals can email them to email@example.com.
Speaking of chiggers
Early autumn always seems to be prime time for outdoor enthusiasts to contact chiggers. People are working near dove fields, food plots and setting deer stands and scouting locations.
Use an approved insect repellant on your skin and clothing. Some repellants, such as ones that are permethrin-based, can prevent not only chiggers but ticks. However, these applications can only be made on clothing, never directly to skin. Some companies, such as Insect Shield, make pre-treated clothing designed to stay effective across 70 washings.
Carry alcohol wipes to rub on your exposed skin that may have contacted chigger habitat such as tall grasses or brush, using them as soon as you leave the field. Segregate and wash any exposed clothing, especially untreated clothing, in warm water. Take a hot shower as soon as possible. You just might prevent a few bites.