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Microscopic mites are causing extreme itching in Pennsylvania’s black bears, leading to hair loss, lesions, infections and even death.

Mark Ternent, a black bear biologist for Pennsylvania’s Game Commission, said he estimated that somewhere between 1 and 3 percent of the state’s bears have mange, which occurs when the mites borrow under an animal’s skin feeding on fluids and then leaving behind debris that cause irritation.

LISTEN: “Why are Pennsylvania Bears Getting Mange?”

Though it’s not an epidemic, mange’s prevalence is concerning. Ternent said he’s not sure why more and more bears seem to be contracting the skin disease.

“It could be a change in the host, the bear. It could be a change in the parasite, the mite that causes mange,” he said. “We have more questions than answers really at this point.”

The Game Commission has medication to help bears infect with mange, so Ternent encourages people to report sightings of animals with bald spots or those that appear underweight.

A black bear suffering from mange. Photo: PA Game Commission

“If we can capture a bear we can give it an injectable drug that can help treat the disease,” said Ternent. “If the animal is really severally debilitated, we can euthanize that animal and get it out of the population and reduce the risk of spread to other bears in the immediate area.”

Humans can help curtail mange’s spread by not leaving out any type food for wildlife, including bird feeders and salt licks, as these also attracts bears. The normally solitary animals are drawn to one location, making transmission of the disease between animals more likely.