Montana’s Government Intentionally Spread Mange in Wildlife

Whenever a coyote or fox is admitted to For Fox Sake, the very first thing we do is treat them for sarcoptic mange. The few who come to us without symptoms invariably have the mites in their skin and, without treatment, will develop symptoms within a few days. No matter what part of the state they come from, wild members of the dog family are infested.

And it’s not their fault. It’s ours.

While canine sarcoptic mites— the tiny bugs that cause mange in dogs and their wild cousins— would have occasionally spread to wildlife without human intervention, the epidemic of mange in North American wildlife can be pretty solidly traced back to Montana in the early 1900s.

In those days, wild animals were not valued for their role in the ecosystem, or for their beauty, or for their inherent right to freedom and dignity. All land was viewed as potential profit and all wildlife was viewed as an inconvenience. The state of Montana decided to hire a veterinarian to capture families of wolves and coyotes, intentionally infect them with mange, and release them so they could return to their dens and spread the disease throughout the wild. This occurred annually from 1905 until 1916. Before that time, sarcoptic mange had never been recorded in North American wildlife.

Untreated, mange can be fatal, and it’s a terrible way to go. Animals with it become dehydrated and develop open sores, which become infected. When they lose their fur, they expend more energy while struggling to regulate their body temperatures, and they can starve. Some “lucky” animals simply freeze to death.

Sarcoptic mites are extremely contagious, especially among social animals. To say that it spread like wildfire would be an understatement. As climate change, urbanization, and secondary rodenticide exposure have left wild animals even more susceptible to mange, it’s rare to find a fox, wolf, or coyote who is completely unaffected by it, and the mites are quickly adapting to more easily infect other animals, such as bears.

We often get asked, in wildlife rehabilitation, why we don’t let nature take its course. The truth is that we often do. We don’t take natural prey away from natural predators and we don’t take small, weak, or old animals out of the wild simply because we think captivity is better. But, in many cases, humans are to blame for the problems facing our native wildlife, and we believe that means we have a responsibility to help.

You can help to prevent the spread of mange in wildlife by never feeding wild animals (especially predators), by never relocating wildlife, and by working with your local wildlife rehabilitators to trap and treat animals with mange symptoms in your area. While it’s far too late to fully undo the damage unleashed over a century ago, it’s never too late to be kind and compassionate to wildlife.

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