The black-footed ferret has been endangered since 1967, and its numbers are still extremely low — some estimates put the population level at around 300 across the U.S.
But there’s good news — an unlikely combination of saviors are lining up to save the species: Unmanned drones and vaccine-laced pellets. (An earlier version of this article identified the pellets as M&Ms, when they will in fact be artisanal and made in-house by USFWS, presumably sourced from local ingredients.)
One of the threats to the ferret population is the Sylvatic plague, which is a bacteria transmitted by fleas. The plague is doubly dangerous to ferrets, since it can affect them directly (when they’re bitten by fleas) and indirectly through prairie dogs, which are also affected by the plague and are a food source for the ferrets.
That’s where the robots and candy come in.
An oral vaccine against the plague has been developed, but delivery has so far presented problems.
“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 United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) biologist, told The Guardian. “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.”
The USFWS has developed a tool that shoots peanut-butter-covered and vaccine-laced pellets in three different directions, which will be strapped to drones. The drones’ test run will be over the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, where a USFWS survey found their presence had “no significant impact” on the environment.
USFWS plans to get the ball rolling — or as the case may be, the pellet-launching drone flying — in September. Godspeed, you candy-launching robots.