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U.S. plans to use drones with candy to save endangered ferrets

Mashable reports the FWS is considering using a special type of drone that shoots vaccine-coated candy near black-footed-ferret hangouts in Montana. The candy actually isn’t for the ferrets, however; it’s to help inoculate their prey against the disease.

The black-footed ferret — only 300 of the animals are known to be alive in the U.S. — is the only ferret native to North America, and its source of both food and shelter is the prairie dog. The ferret hunts and eats prairie dogs, then uses the rodents’ shelter as protection from the weather and other predators.

Prairie dogs are the reason the black-footed ferret is facing a growing threat from the sylvatic plague, a disease transmitted by fleas that first made landfall in California in the 1800s thanks to rats on ships. Prairie dogs are more likely to catch the disease first, then transmit it to ferrets.

That’s where the unmanned aerial systems come in, which can shoot “vaccine-covered M&Ms” in three directions at once, the Guardian reports. The FWS figures that if if the drone fitted with a “glorified gumball machine” can dispense three units of the vaccine per second, it can cover 200 acres in just an hour. Federal government employees are currently deploying vaccine by hand, and most workers can only cover between three and six acres per hour.

The FWS considers the drones to be “the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method of application,” but there could be some potential pitfalls. If prairie dogs notice the increased presence of drones, they could scurry back into their shelters, making it harder for the ferrets to find their prey. However, the FWS thinks such behaviour would be temporary as the prairie dogs get used to drones.

If the drone-candy plan is officially approved, the FWS will launch a trial of the program in Montana this September, possibly expanding into other areas later. The plan apparently got a lot of praise during the public-comment period.

The black-footed ferret was listed as endangered in 1967. Officials thought the species was extinct in 1981, but later found a small population to breed in captivity. As a result, the 300-strong ferret population can trace its lineage back to just seven ferrets.

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