Drones + Peanut Butter = Clever Plan to Help Endangered Ferrets

There has been chatter lately about the possibility of using drones to deliver food, and I for one sure wouldn’t mind having drones deliver tasty peanut butter snacks. This is just what the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service is proposing, (Yay!) only these snacks won’t be delivered to people (Bummer!) Actually, this peanut butter delivery isn’t about food at all, it’s really an ingenious way of using drones to help Black-footed ferrets, an endangered species in need of some help.

To understand this rescue mission we need to step back and take some time to understand all the pieces involved here.

Before we get to ferrets, we need to talk about prairie dogs. I thought this article was supposed be about drones. I hear you mutter. Bear with me, we will get to that.

Prairie dogs are the primary prey for Black-footed ferrets and in days of yore when bold pioneers settled the western territories of our nation they frequently instituted prairie dog eradication programs to protect their crops. However, as the numbers of prairie dogs  and their habitats dwindled, so did the number of black-footed ferrets that depended on them for food and habitats. Dropping from tens of thousands throughout North America, to as low as only 20 in the 1980s and they were even thought to be extinct at one point.

Though the ferrets have been bred in captivity and reintroduced into the wild, their numbers are still low (around 300) and they probably won’t thrive without some help as regards their food source. Prairie dogs are susceptible to the sylvatic plague; a flea transmitted bacterial contagion that can rapidly and devastatingly wipe out large numbers of the critters, leaving the hungry ferrets lacking for food.

Aware of this ecological problem and eager to protect the once nearly extinct ferrets, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service through testing and research have developed an effective vaccine for the infection that has done well in initial tests and could be a literal lifesaver as far as these animals are concerned.  This vaccine is encased in a peanut butter snack which the prairie dogs would find tasty and be inclined to eat. The problem is how to get the medicine to the patients. One technique that has already been in use for many years is manually squirting flea-killing powder into prairie dog burrows but when one considers that there are thousands of burrows over multiple states, such a task is beyond daunting.

Here’s where drones come in. (I know, that’s why you’re reading this article. I told you we’d get to the drones.) Randy Matchett, one of the chief biologists in charge of developing the vaccine noted that in comparison with existing methods, the prospect of having a drone properly programmed to release a peanut butter pellet every 30 feet, covering two acres per minute (or 200 acres per hour) is an appealing one.

We must be careful to avoid the idea that this will be involve an army of drones raining a cloud of peanut butter snacks down upon the heads of a crowd of prairie dogs. Impressive though such an image might be the reality won’t be like that.

The plan is much more practical. A few drones guided by GPS will release one pellet at a time every 30 feet using a device not unlike a gumball machine dispenser. This drone rescue mission is still in the planning stages awaiting approval, but Matchett has been working with a contractor on design specifications and it’s hoped that the plan could be put into effect by September of 2016, beginning with a test area of 10,000 acres in Montana in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge.

Though this would not be a Reese’s snack run which might get some of us excited, it would be much more useful to the prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets and highlights the effectiveness of using drones to cheaply and quickly disperse medical and other essential materials to the places that need them.