U.S. wildlife officials have a problem: How to save the endangered black-footed ferret from a plague.
One wildlife biologist called the contraption a “glorified gumball machine.”
Black-footed ferrets, North America’s only native ferret, depend on prairie dogs for their survival, eating them and invading their burrows for shelter.
Once thought to be extinct worldwide, these ferrets have been making a comeback over the last 30 years thanks to efforts from state and federal agencies, zoos, conservation groups and private landowners, according to the World Wildlife Fund. Nearly 300 are said to remain in a handful of sites across North America.
But both the black-footed ferret and prairie dogs are endangered by a current epidemic of the sylvatic plague, a flea-borne disease.
In an environmental assessment earlier this year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service called the plague “a significant impediment to ferret recovery because of its lethality to ferrets, and because it can eliminate prairie dogs on which ferrets are dependent for both habitat, and as prey.”
Wildlife officials have been stumped on how to protect prairie dogs spread over large acres of land.
“We dropped the vaccine out of a bag while walking around, but that’s very hard to do over thousands of acres,” Randy Machett, a USFW biologist told The Guardian.
“Spraying burrows with insecticide to kill the fleas is also labor-intensive and not a long-term solution. So we are working with private contractors to develop equipment to drop the vaccine uniformly across an area, rather than one hog getting to eat a big pile of them.”
Machett said a “glorified gumball machine” has been created to fit into a drone and spray M&Ms smeared with vaccine-laden peanut butter.
“It is the fastest, cheapest way to distribute the vaccine,” he 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.”
The plan still has to survive a public comment period; farmers who consider both animals a pest are not fans of the drone plan, according to Wired.
“Local farmers are perfectly happy to see both species dead as doornails and don’t want to find peanut-smeared chocolate in their meadows,” notes Uproxx.
“But until they work out a way to get ferrets and prairie dogs onto a health plan, the candy-hosing drone will have to do.”
Machett told The Guardian that wildlife officials hope to have the drones in the air by Sept. 1. If the plan works in Montana, similar efforts are expected in Arizona and Colorado.