How drones and M&Ms could save this endangered ferret

How do you save an endangered species? Sometimes, an aerial candy dispenser is your best shot.

The black-footed ferret is in trouble — only 300 remain worldwide. But biologists at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have put together what may sound like a crazy idea to save this animal. If the approach works, it could be beneficial to other endangered populations.

The plan involves drones, chocolate and prairie dogs, all in a bid to prevent the spread of a bacterial disease called sylvatic plague that affects some animals in the western Plains of the U.S.

Here’s how it would work:

Save the prairie dog, save the ferret

By vaccinating prairie dogs against the sylvatic plague, officials preserve ferrets’ most important source of food and shelter. Prairie dogs are rodents that live in large family groups in underground burrows.

Prairie dogs love chocolate

Who doesn’t love chocolate? Scientists in Montana have devised the perfect delivery system: M&Ms — small, sugar-shelled chocolate discs — slathered in vaccine-laced peanut butter. Delicious!

Drones to the rescue

Using GPS navigation, a modified commercial drone can evenly shoot candies in multiple directions and cover the ground about 70 times faster than a person could. “We dropped the vaccine out of a bag while walking around, but that’s very hard to do over thousands of acres,” said Randy Machett of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Machett hopes to have candy-dropping drones flying over the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge by September.

Drones have already proven useful in tracking illegal fishing and monitoring orangutan and elephant populations.

The black-footed ferret, a member of the weasel family, is the only ferret species native to the Americas. It was thought to be extinct, but in the 1980s, a small population was rediscovered in Wyoming. These ferrets became the foundation for a successful captive breeding and reintroduction program that continues today.