This post originally appeared on http://www.nola.com/outdoors/index.ssf/2016/07/drones_to_shoot_mms_to_save_en.html.
[Editor’s Note: Lab tests reveal that ground hogs think the medicine-laced M&M’s are delicious.]
Farmers despise black-footed ferrets and the ground hogs they feast upon, but the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service loves them, and has come up with an unconventional way to save both critters: The service will use drones to scatter medicine-laced M&Ms across the plains.
Endangered black-footed ferrets — North America’s only native ferret — depend on ground hogs to dig burrows for them. The ferrets show their appreciation by devouring the ground hogs.
Unfortunately, however, ground hogs are primary carriers of sylvatic plague, a fatal disease brought to the continent in the 19th century by rats on ships. The disease also kills the ferrets, which is a problem because there are only about 300 left in the wild.
To prevent the animals from contracting the disease, the service charged private contractors with coming up with an effective method for delivering a vaccine. Ultimately, the chosen mechanism was a drone that travels a GPS-directed route and shoots M&Ms smeared with vaccine-laden peanut butter in three directions. Biologist Randy Machett told theguardian.com the device is a “glorified gumball machine.”
Lab tests reveal that ground hogs find the M&Ms, not surprisingly, to be “delicious.”
The service will conduct the delivery on UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Montana, but the method may be expanded.
“It is the fastest, cheapest way to distribute the vaccine,” Machett said. “We are hopeful this oral vaccine will be used to mitigate plague sites and treat tens of thousands of acres each year.”