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​Government drones spray prairie dogs with peanut butter to help ferrets

The US Fish and Wildlife Service wants to make sure endangered ferrets stay safe from a deadly disease, so it comes up with a plan involving peanut butter pellets delivered via drones.

Vaccinating prairie dogs could help encourage more numbers of endangered black-footed ferrets like these.

USFWS

Drones aren't just for re-creating action scenes from Star Wars and scooping kitty litter. They could also give the endangered black-footed ferret a better chance at survival.

In an effort to prevent the black-footed ferret population from decreasing in the United States, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or USFWS, has devised a sweet plan to get vaccines to a Montana ferret colony using an unusual delivery method -- drones and peanut butter.

The much needed vaccination is for the Sylvatic plague, a deadly disease transmitted via fleas that bite prairie dogs, the ferrets' main food source. Edible pellets -- each pellet about the size of an M&M chocolate candy -- contain peanut butter and the vaccine, which the prairie dogs eat. (Prairie dogs are burrowing rodents and not actual dogs.)

Of course, getting the peanut butter pellets to animals in the most efficient way possible is no easy feat.

"We dropped the vaccine out of a bag while walking around, but that's very hard to do over thousands of acres," USFWS biologist Randy Machett told The Guardian. "We are working with private contractors to develop equipment to drop the vaccine uniformly across an area."

This effort resulted in creating a "glorified gumball machine" mechanism that can be fitted to a GPS-enabled drone that will dispense the vaccine in multiple directions at 30-foot (9-meter) intervals, according to The Guardian.

While less than 300 black-footed ferrets remain in the US, according to the USFWS, the agency hopes this new effort will help to prevent the ferrets from dying by making sure their prairie dog prey doesn't succumb to the Sylvatic plague. If the drone experiment is successful, other states such as Arizona and Colorado may follow Montana's lead.

"The progress we have made in bringing the species back from the brink of extinction shows that the Endangered Species Act remains our best tool for saving species, and we will consider any reasonable strategy, however unconventional it may be, to save the black-footed ferret -- even if it means shooting peanut butter vaccines from drones," Ryan Moehring of the USFWS' Mountain-Prairie Region Public Affairs said.

Previous experiments included using donated frozen genetic material artificially inseminated into ferrets.

Update, Thursday at 2:39 p.m. PT: The headline has been changed to make it more clear that prairie dogs are the ones getting the vaccination.

Correction, July 19 at 11:30 a.m. PT: The description of the pellets has been changed to clarify what they contain -- peanut butter.