14/07/2016 8:00 PM AEST

Biologists Hope Candy-Shooting Drones Will Save Endangered Ferrets

The technology would deliver vaccine-laced peanut butter treats to the species’ primary prey.

Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski via Getty Images
The population of black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, ranging from Canada to Mexico.

Scientists may have found the perfect weapon in the fight to save the critically endangered black-footed ferret: drones outfitted to shoot vaccine-spiked, peanut butter-flavored bait pellets.

The vaccine snacks, however, aren’t for the ferrets, but the burrowing rodents the animals rely on almost exclusively for food and shelter: prairie dogs. 

As it turns out, protecting their prey could prove key to recovering ferret populations.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies have been experimenting for several years with a vaccine to protect prairie dogs from sylvatic plague, a devastating bacterial disease that fleas transmit. Now proven effective in small populations, the agency has turned its attention to management. It is exploring alternative delivery methods, including the use of all-terrain vehicles and unmanned aircraft.

Randy Matchett, an FWS biologist in Montana, told The Huffington Post that drones are particularly appealing, as the technology would allow for large areas of land to be treated quickly, cost-effectively and with little impact to the environment.

“I’m saving hover boards for last,” he joked.

Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski via Getty Images
Once thought to be extinct, a remnant population of the endangered black-footed ferret was discovered, which started a reintroduction program to re-establish a population on the wild prairie.

The population of black-footed ferrets once numbered in the tens of thousands, ranging from Canada to Mexico. But much like their favorite meal, the ferrets ultimately fell victim to habitat loss, lack of food and disease, according to the FWS. Twice the species was believed to be extinct.

These rare, solitary creatures now inhabit about 2 percent of their historic range. Roughly 300 individuals were known to exist in the wild at the end of 2015.

The FWS said in an environmental assessment detailing its proposal to begin using drones that the recovery of black-footed ferrets is among the agency’s highest priorities. And what better way to achieve that goal than to safeguard the species they rely on for more than 90 percent of their diet.

Matchett told HuffPost that the sylvatic plague has proven particularly devastating to prairie dogs. Their numbers have fallen to a fraction of their historic levels. In 1992, for example, he watched a single 1,300-acre colony reduced to just 37 acres in three weeks.

Travel Images/UIG via Getty Images
Prairie dogs are the black-footed ferret's primary prey.

The proposal calls for using unmanned aircraft to distribute the candy-like vaccines on up to 10,000 acres of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, located in northeastern Montana. The plan is now awaiting approval from the agency’s regional director, Matchett said.

Equipped with GPS and a dispenser that Matchett described as a “new and improved gum ball machine,” the drones would be able to shoot bait in three separate directions simultaneously, evenly distributing them at a rate of 50 pellets per acre.

While someone walking can typically cover 3-6 acres per hour, a drone could be outfitted to treat 200 acres per hour, according to the FWS. Matchett said he hopes to begin using drones by Sept. 1 of this year and eventually take the technology elsewhere.

“I envision treating 10,000- to 30,000-acre parcels with this vaccination,” he told HuffPost. It’s no secret why drones become “pretty attractive, pretty fast,” Matchett added.

Equally as attractive is the idea of saving a critter once thought gone forever.