The government reportedly plans to use drones firing peanut-butter pellets in an attempt to prevent black-footed ferrets from becoming extinct. The plan proposed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would see unmanned areal vehicles (drones) drop peanut-butter pellets that are laced with a plague vaccine down on areas filled with prairie dogs.
Black-footed ferrets typically eat prairie dogs, but prairie dogs often carry the plague, which is fatal. The ferrets are on the verge of extinction—according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the ferrets are considered one of the rarest mammals in North America, due to human-induced threats. The plague itself poses two important problems: it is lethal to ferrets, and when it kills prairie dogs it decreases the available prey for ferrets, diminishing food sources.
“Plague is a primary obstacle to black-footed ferret recovery,” the agency notes on its website. 20 years of intensive reintroduction efforts have resulted in wild black-footed ferret rebounding to around 300. Given that in the 1980s there were fewer than 20 of the ferrets, the recovery has been remarkable. But they remain on the endangered list, and recent efforts to control the plague have begun to lose effectiveness.
That’s because the agency has typically treated prairie dog burrows with a chemical designed to eliminate fleas that carry the plague. But the fleas may be becoming resistant to the chemical treatment. They then spread the plague to the prairie dogs, who in turn spread it to the ferrets.
Another method of controlling the plague involved the vaccine being delivered by hand, with people dropping the baits every 9 to 10 meters. But that method is costly and time-consuming. Ferrets themselves are difficult to vaccinate because they live in burrows underground and only come out at night.
The new plan is to deliver plague-vaccinated peanut butter treats to prairie dogs via drone. The drones would drop the pellets over an area of up to 10,000 acres, dropping around 50 pellets per acre. The drones would be active from dawn until noon, which is when prairie dogs are most active but other animals that might also consume the bait are less active and therefore less likely to compete for the pellets.
The proposed plan would see the bait spread during July or August each year.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has also proposed a second plan, sending humans on ATVs to spread the pellets. But the drones would be faster and cover a wider area.
There are also around 280 black-footed ferrets living in captive breeding centers, from which bred ferrets are released into the wild.