A specialized drone could be instrumental in saving an endangered species of ferret in the United States. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has announced plans to test out a program that would use unmanned aerial systems (UAS) to shoot vaccine-covered candy into the black-footed ferret's habitat in Montana. The goal of this scheme is to help inoculate the animal against sylvatic plague — a disease that can decimate black-footed ferret populations. The vaccination effort is designed to indirectly benefit the ferrets by specifically targeting prairie dog populations, which are also susceptible to the plague. Black-footed ferrets depend on prairie dogs for food and shelter. SEE ALSO: The FAA's new rules for drones are bad news for Amazon Ferrets prey upon prairie dogs, and then occupy their underground burrows for shelter from the weather and safety from predators located above ground. The drones that may be used in this effort would ideally be designed to shoot the candies in three directions at the same time, according to an environmental assessment of the drone program put out by the Fish and Wildlife Service. A report from The Guardian says the vaccine bait would be "M&Ms smeared in vaccine-laden peanut butter." "If the equipment can be developed to deposit 3 SPV [sylvatic plague vaccination] doses simultaneously every second, as we envision is possible, some 200 acres per hour could be treated by a single operator," the Fish and Wildlife Service said. At the moment, there are only about 300 known black-footed ferrets still alive in the United States, and "plague is a primary obstacle to black-footed ferret recovery," the assessment states. The species has been considered endangered since 1967. Kelly Uhing of the City of Denver Parks and Recreation Department waits for a black-footed ferret to head into a prairie dog tunnel during a release of 30 black-footed ferrets on Oct. 5, 2015 in Colorado. Image: AP/David Zalubowski Today, people working with the federal government deliver vaccines by hand by walking through prairie dog habitats. In total, one person doing that work is able to treat between 3 and 6 acres per hour, the assessment found, but that isn't necessarily a viable option when trying to save this endangered species. "Operational use of SPV in support of ferret recovery will require annual treatments across many thousands of acres of prairie dog complexes on each of more than a dozen ferret reintroduction sites distributed from Canada to Mexico," the agency said. "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." Drone use could be a huge help in getting vaccines to the animals who need them more efficiently. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, delivering the vaccine by drone "is anticipated to eventually be the most efficient, effective, cost-conscious and environmentally friendly method of application." If all goes according to plan, a trial of the program will be launched in September in Montana, with other areas to follow later, The Guardian reported. The federal assessment also concluded that the drone program itself will probably not have a harmful impact on the environment or the prairie dogs being treated. "Like any human presence, UAS overflights may cause prairie dogs to seek shelter and safety in their burrow systems," the USFWS said. "Such behavior would be temporary, if at all, and very short in duration."
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