by Elizabeth Purcell
As a hiker or backpacker, there is always a chance that you may find yourself face to face with a bear. This experience could be classified as terrifying, exhilarating, and rewarding. Recently, a friend and I started out on a seven mile loop hike near our hometown in Western Pennsylvania. We know our area is heavily populated with black bears, however, we never thought that we would even encounter one. About a half mile into the hike, we turned a corner on the trail and about six feet in front of us was a very unhappy and agitated sow and her cub. She started to pop her jaw and bluff charge us, so we put everything we knew about black bear behavior to the test. She did not pursue, as we did not give her a reason to. While the experience rattled us, we were amazed to see a bear in the wild. The black bear we saw was visibly healthy, as well as her cub. This, however, is not the case for many other black bears in Pennsylvania.
All over the United States, there have been an increase in bear encounters with humans. With the bear population on the rise, in one region, there is a new threat to the species. In central Pennsylvania, a break out of mange amongst black bears has been on the rise. Mange is a skin infection caused by parasitic mites, which often results in death of the animal. Black bears across central Pennsylvania have been found nearly hairless and starving to death as a result of this infection. Some black bears are being lured with food to be trapped and treated for mange in an effort to stop the spread of the disease. However, some bears are already too far along to be treated. The mites that cause mange are spread two different ways: general area and direct contact. Since the bear population has increased, more bears are in common areas across the state, leading to the spread of the mites. Bears who are also in direct contact with one another also spread the mites. While this issue may seem out of the public’s hands, there is still something that we can do to help stop the spread of the parasitic mites.
Pennsylvania is home to gorgeous mountains and hundreds of different trails. Many hikers and backpackers embark on multi-day hikes, meaning camping overnight on the trails. It is a known fact that bears tend to gravitate towards food. If food is left out at a campsite or intentionally given to the bears, it allows for the spread of the mites to occur because the bears are all in a common area after the same thing. What we can do on our end is to stop feeding the bears and make sure campsites are clean and food is put out of reach of the bears. By cleaning up after ourselves on the trails, the threat of the common area for the spreading of mites is depleted. With continuing treatment to affected bears and cleaning up the trails, the threat of mange could eventually be eliminated in the Pennsylvania black bear population. While it is nearly impossible to cure mange and destroy all the mites, less bears would be affected and succumb to the infection if we continue to take these steps.
To have the opportunity to see a bear in the wild is incredible. With the continued threat of mange, this opportunity may not be available to those in the regions with the affected population. It is very important that if you do come across a bear that exhibits the signs of mange, you do not approach the bear and you must report the sighting to you state game commissioner.