A couple of questions long pondered have gone unanswered.
Starting in the 1980s, a few Pennsylvania bears began turning up with mange, a skin disease caused by mites. It has remained a part of the bear population ever since.
In fact, the number of cases is on the upswing in recent years, according to Pennsylvania Game Commission figures.
In Tioga County, wildlife conservation officer Rodney Mee handled six bears with mange in May. Three were so ill — the disease causes substantial hair loss, rashes, emaciation, itching and more, leading to behavior changes — they had to be euthanized.
Other cases were uncovered closer to home in recent years, including Westmoreland and Armstrong counties.
Not everywhere with bears sees much mange, said Justin Brown, the commission's wildlife veterinarian. Coyotes get it in many places, and foxes, but not so much bears, he said.
“Outside of Pennsylvania, it's more of a rare, uncommon disease,” he said.
Why is the question. There is no answer yet, it seems. Biologists have wondered if perhaps it is a question of density, meaning as the bear population grows, mange cases do, too. Other states, such as New Jersey, have lots of bears with no problems, Brown said.
“Density, at this point, we don't see an obvious relationship,” he said.
The commission also has wondered just what percentage of bears in the state has mange. That, too, remains unknown.
“We don't really have the diagnostics to get a good snapshot of the prevalence of mange in bears in the state,” Brown said. “It's something we're working on.”
It is unlikely the commission can eliminate mange in bears, Brown said. The key to minimizing its spread if to limit congregation of bears, as the mites seem to be most often passed from animal to animal.
Mee suggested, at least in his area, that people would best serve bears by not feeding them, intentionally or via birdfeeders. He called that a “major contributing factor” in mange's spread in Tioga.
Hunters who shoot a bear that has mange in the fall can turn the animal over to the commission and get a replacement tag that allows them to shoot another, executive director Matt Hough said.
About two-thirds do, commission bear biologist Mark Ternent said. The agency advises against eating the meat from sick bears, but some hunters want to keep the skulls as trophies, and they can't do both that and get a replacement tag, he said.