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Drones to scatter vaccine-coated M&Ms to save endangered ferrets

From Amazon deliveries to racing competitions, drones are being drawn into many unexpected aspects of life. But perhaps none is more unlikely than a plan dreamed up to help save the black-footed ferrets, an endangered mammal in the Great Plains.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) intends to use drones to scatter vaccine-coated M&Ms over the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Montana to help protect the animals from a devastating disease.

The vaccine combats an infection called sylvatic plague that is decimating both the prairie dog and ferret populations in the area. This is important, because the smaller prairie dogs are a crucial food source for the endangered ferrets. The ferrets also use the prairie dogs' burrows for shelter, according to an FWS document outlining the project that was published March 31, 2016.

According to The Guardian newspaper, the vaccine will be mixed into peanut butter and then smeared onto M&Ms to entice the animals to eat it. Prairie dogs find the bait "delicious," FWS biologist Randy Machett told the paper.

The black-footed ferret has long been in trouble. The species was declared endangered in 1967, and is considered among North America's rarest mammals.

"Plague is a primary obstacle to black-footed ferret recovery," the FWS wrote in its proposal. "After more than 20 years of intensive reintroduction efforts across 27 reintroduction sites ranging from Mexico to Canada, approximately 300 ferrets were known to exist in the wild at the end of 2015."

In the past, the main tool to manage the plague has been to treat prairie dog burrows with chemicals to kill fleas, which are the primary carrier of the bacteria that causes plague. Unfortunately, this technique became ineffective when fleas developed resistance to the chemical treatment.

The vaccine to combat the plague has previously been distributed by hand, which obviously proved inadequate and difficult to manage. A drone could cover much more territory, much faster than humans. The FWS plan calls for drones to fly between three and 30 meters (about 10 to 100 feet) above the ground and scatter about 50 pellets of vaccine-treated M&Ms per acre.

Machett told The Guardian he hopes this distribution plan will be operational by September 1, after a final approval process.

The initial trial would be conducted in Montana, and if it's successful, this kind of vaccine distribution could also be applied to ferret populations in Colorado and Arizona.

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