Drone-Delivered M&Ms Could Be Last Hope For US Ferrets

A new disease is wiping out the U.S.' wild black footed ferret population at an alarming rate.

A horrible plague is decimating the United States’ only native species of ferret. The black-footed ferrets rely entirely on nearby prairie dog populations for food and shelter. A new disease has spread from fleas to rats to the prairie dogs and has worked its way up the food chain to the already endangered ferrets.

The ferrets prey upon the prairie dogs then take over their burrows. This may not make the ferrets easy to empathize with, but their rapidly dwindling numbers demand sympathy. In response to the crisis, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has developed a plan. They will deploy drones to leave medicine (in the form of vaccine-covered M&M’s) within the Montana ferret habitats. Specifically, these drones will be aimed at the prairie dog population at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in north-eastern Montana.

The proposal, initially filed in March, seeks to help maintain the two populations so each can continue their somewhat codependent way of life. The idea seems to have come about after FWS researchers determined that this was an efficient way to deliver medicine to the area’s prairie dog population, which several types of animals depend on for survival. The medicine starts at the bottom of the pecking order and is targeted at the flea populations that spread the disease between the two species.

What makes this particularly interesting, is the drone itself, it will be equipped with a “glorified gumball machine” to dispense the vaccine-infused peanut butter covered candy and will be able to fire the medicine in three different directions at once. “It is the fastest, cheapest way to distribute the vaccine,” FWS biologist Randy Machett told The Guardian. “We are hopeful this oral vaccine will be used to mitigate plague sites and treat tens of thousands of acres each year.” After final FWS approval, the trial should be operational by September 1st, with potential new locations in Arizona and Colorado afterwards.

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