Black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs as a source of food, but both species are being decimated by disease.
Black-footed ferrets, among North America’s rarest mammals, have been listed as an endangered species since 1967 and are a top priority for conservation efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
After 20 years of trying to rebuild ferret populations from Mexico to Canada, the species, of which only 300 were known to live in the wild in 2015, has been ravaged by sylvatic plague. It’s not only lethal to ferrets, but has also been killing off their main source of food, prairie dogs, according to the Wildlife Service.
To stop the spread of the deadly disease, which is made possible via infected fleas, the Wildlife Service is proposing a novel plan to use drones to spread peanut butter-flavored vaccine pellets to save the prairie dogs and thus the ferrets.
According to the Wildlife Service, the plague is the primary obstacle to recovery of the ferrets and has been previously treated by using flea-killing pulicides, but “flea resistance to chemical control has recently been suspected and is a growing concern for usefulness of this plague mitigation tool.”
Not only are fleas possibly becoming resistant to certain chemicals, but also spreading the vaccine by hand to prairie dog colonies is a labor-intensive process, taking a single person an hour to cover three to six acres depending on the terrain, according to the Wildlife Service.
That is slow-going considering the Wildlife Service wants to cover thousands of acres across more than a dozen ferret reintroduction sites across North America.
“The time and labor force required for such treatments by hand on foot would be very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve and sustain over long periods of time,” according to an assessment by the Wildlife Service.
The black-footed ferret. Photo credit: USFWS Mountain-Prairie/flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Using four-wheeled all-terrain vehicles is a possible option to speed up the distribution process and decrease the human-labor required, but the use of ATVs, which run on fossil fuels and leave significant tracks, comes with its own set of problems, the Wildlife Service said.
Enter the drones, which if modified to distribute the candied vaccine pellets in three directions simultaneously every second, could cover 200 acres in a hour with a single drone, according to the Wildlife Service’s proposal.
“It is anticipated that this approach, when fully developed, will offer the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method to apply SPV (sylvatic plague vaccine) annually over large areas of prairie dog colonies in support of black-footed ferret recovery,” the Wildlife Service states.
The Wildlife Service would like to begin using the drones in August, but as Wired reports, development of the candy-shooting drone is still in the “noodling” phase.
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