The United States Fish and Wildlife (FWS) has a new creative plan to save the black-footed ferret from extinction. The species is currently fighting against a plague epidemic in North America, which affects habitats in Montana.

The plan consists on deploying drones capable of shooting M&M’S candies containing vaccines. The flying machines will seek prairie dog populations located at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, said The Guardian.  Researchers said prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets are co-related. The former can be vaccinated using an injection, while the first are harder to control in broader areas, said wildlife officials. The sylvatic plague, an infectious bacterial disease, is affecting both species. The same bacterium responsible for causing this disease causes the bubonic plague in humans. Black-footed ferrets commonly encroach burrows built by prairie dogs.

Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes). Photo credit: Kimberly Fraser/USFWS

Prairie dogs are fundamental for maintaining black-footed ferrets alive. The Defenders of Wildlife Organization said that an American ferret could eat up to 100 prairie dogs per year, as the creatures account for 90 percent of their diet.

Researchers have calculated that a population of healthy ferrets needs more than 10,000 acres of prairie dogs to live over an extended period. The latter is also the food of eagles, coyotes, and owls.

Randy Machett, a biologist at FWS, told The Guardian that researchers have distributed vaccines all around. However, the task gets complicated when wanting to cover an area of thousands of acres.

“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 told The Guardian.

There are only 300 black-footed ferrets in the wild

The best solution was to create a “glorified gumball machine”, said Machett. The M&M’s dispenser is equipped with GPS technology that allows it shoot candies in three different directions, every 30 feet.

The candies will be covered in peanut butter containing vaccines. Laboratory tests conducted by FWS determined that prairie dogs appreciate the taste of peanut butter. The Defenders of Wildlife Organization said there are only 300 black-footed ferrets in the wild.

Other 300 black-footed ferrets are being cared in captive breeding facilities. In 1986 researchers believed the species had become extinct, as only 18 living creatures remained. The animals are being reintroduced in 27 locations in Mexico, Canada, and the United States.

Black-footed ferrets are also affected by habitat loss and shootings since some farmers consider them like a plague. The FWS would approve the plan involving M&M’s containing vaccines on September 1, said The Guardian.

Machett said the public is supporting the plan, which seeks to eradicate the sylvatic plague in the fastest and cheapest way possible. If the operation is successful in Montana, researchers will send aid drones to black-footed ferrets in Arizona and Colorado.

The U.S. Endangered Species Act determines that endangered species should be protected, especially when they are affected by human actions. 

Source: The Guardian