Aerial Snack Cannons Could Help Save the Black-Footed Ferret

Kimberly Fraser/USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Kimberly Fraser/USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Kimberly Fraser/USFWS via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

Today’s dispatch from the Annals of Wacky Conservation Schemes is a doozy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) plans to use drones [PDF] to scatter hundreds of thousands of peanut butter treats across the Montana prairie in order to save an adorable endangered ferret.

Similar to previous plans involving poisonous toad sausages and Styrofoam-stuffed dead turtles, this plan only seems silly until you learn the backstory. The tale in Montana is a relatively simple one. Once upon a time, black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) ate prairie dogs (genus Cynomys), and everyone prospered. Then along came the prairie dog plague (Yersinia pestis—yes, the very bacteria responsible for the Black Death), which massacred the prairie dogs and left the ferrets with nothing to eat. Their numbers dwindled, and dwindled, and dwindled. They would have died out altogether, had it not been for USFWS wildlife managers, who rescued enough ferrets to start a healthy captive population, then introduced them back into the wild.

The efforts were a relative success: Today, instead of extinct, the black-footed ferret is just seriously endangered, with fewer than 300 individuals left in the wild. But the root of the entire problem—the flea-borne plague—remains at large. 

Y. pestis is voracious [PDF], but it can be stopped; Scientists developed a vaccine against the disease in the early 2000s. Recognizing the impracticality of rounding up the prairie dogs individually for shots (and who has that many tiny Band-aids?), they devised a clever alternative: stuffing the vaccine into chewy, peanut-butter flavored prairie dog treats. 

The vaccine worked, as did the peanut butter. In fact, it might have worked a little too well, says biologist Randy Matchett of the USFWS. “We have to drop one bait every 30 feet,” he told WIRED. “If we don’t spread them out uniformly, one big, fat prairie dog could eat them all.” 

In order to eradicate the plague, USFWS will have to scatter 350,000 prairie dog treats, 30 feet apart, over 1200 acres, by the end of summer 2016. Team members had been laying the handmade treats across the prairie one at a time, but they quickly realized they’d never meet their deadline.

Enter two very different devices: an automated carp-bait machine called the BoilieRoller and a treat-dispensing drone. The BoilieRoller produces uniformly-sized soft pellets, which in this case means medicated prairie dog treats. Once he’s amassed a full armory of peanut butter bullets, Matchett hopes to load them into an miniature catapult attached to an aerial drone, which will be controlled via GPS. If all goes according to plan, he says, the resulting robo-vaccinator could scatter 400 doses in an hour. 

At this point, the treat machine is still theoretical, but the team is aiming to complete a proof-of-concept design by August.

[h/t WIRED]

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