The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to save endangered ferrets with a "glorified gumball machine" that shoots M&Ms. Beginning in September, government scientists say they'll use a drone armed with a device that shoots candies in three directions in an effort to stop a plague in northeastern Montana. The M&Ms, containing vaccine-laced peanut butter, will be aimed at prairie dogs, which have been hit hard by the sylvatic plague carried by fleas. As the plague also affects the 300 endangered black-footed ferrets known to exist in the wild—which prey on prairie dogs and steal their burrows, per the FWS—scientists fear it could spell disaster for both species, per the Guardian.
"We dropped the vaccine out of a bag while walking around, but that’s very hard to do over thousands of acres," says FWS biologist Randy Machett, who notes the plague can also wreak havoc on ferrets. "Spraying burrows with insecticide to kill the fleas is also labor intensive and not a long-term solution." The drone scheme is "the fastest, cheapest way to distribute the vaccine" and will allow scientists to "drop the vaccine uniformly across an area," Machett adds. "We are hopeful this oral vaccine will be used to mitigate plague sites and treat tens of thousands of acres each year." If all goes well, scientists plan to expand the operation to Arizona and Colorado. (Read more US Fish and Wildlife Service stories.)