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US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets

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Kimberly Tamkun, USFWS

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has a plan to save the endangered black-footed ferret, and it involves candy. The agency has proposed delivering vaccines to a ferret colony in Montana using drones capable of shooting vaccine-laced M&M's, The Guardian reports.

According to the USFWS, the black-footed ferret has been endangered since 1967, and remains very rare (only around 300 live across the US). One of the threats to the ferret population is the Sylvatic plague, a bacterial disease transmitted by fleas. The plague is lethal to both ferrets and prairie dogs, who provide ferrets with a source of food and tunnels for shelter. An oral Sylvatic plague vaccine has already been developed and approved for prairie dogs and ferrets, and the USFWS suggests that drones will be able to deliver the vaccine at a significant scale.

A vaccinated treat

"We dropped the vaccine out of a bag while walking around, but that’s very hard to do over thousands of acres," Randy Machett, a USFWS biologist told The Guardian. "We are working with private contractors to develop equipment to drop the vaccine uniformly across an area, rather than one hog getting to eat a big pile of them."

The USFWS has constructed a device that can shoot peanut-butter covered M&M's in three different directions, according to The Guardian. The device will be strapped to drones that will fly over the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge, delivering the vaccine to the animals below, who, according to Machett, think the candy is "delicious."

The USFWS found the presence of the drones in the area had "no significant impact" on the surrounding environment. The proposal was open for a 30-day public comment period this spring. Pending final approval, the plan should be implemented by early September, according to The Guardian.