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Watch peanut butter drone strikes that could save endangered ferrets

By Karin Brulliard

October 24, 2016 at 12:49 PM

A black-footed ferret at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Black-footed Ferret Conservation Center in Wellington, Colo. (Kimberly Fraser/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP )

In the summer, we reported on a government plan to fly ammunition-firing drones over the middle of America to save an adorable native animal on the brink of extinction. Now there's video of the project, and while it's no adrenaline-infused action film, it's pretty cool.

Related: [The feds want to launch peanut butter drone strikes to save endangered ferrets]

The stars are endangered black-footed ferrets and their primary prey, prairie dogs, both of which spend time on-screen popping their heads out of the underground burrows they both depend on. The supporting actors are government, wildlife and drone experts who have been toiling to devise efficient ways to vaccinate prairie dogs against the sylvatic plague. The disease kills prairie dogs — and thus leaves the ferrets with little to eat. The backdrop is the breezy, blue-skied American grassland where the critters reside.

Watch more!
A video released by the World Wildlife Fund shows how "an unlikely combination of peanut butter and drones has given biologists renewed hope for the future of North America’s rarest mammal, the endangered black-footed ferret." (World Wildlife Fund)

The props are all-terrain vehicles and a red drone that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service describes as an 18-pound, "750 mm umbrella style multi-rotor copter in an X8 (coaxial) configuration." It's a fairly small contraption that looks closer to a flying model airplane than an armed drone over the mountains of Pakistan.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Randy Matchett observes a drone firing vaccine-laced pellets. (World Wildlife Fund-U.S./Conservation Media)

The ATVs and drones are being tested for use in firing blue, peanut-butter-flavored pellets that are the size of a gumball. The bait is laced with plague vaccine, and Fish and Wildlife says 60 to 90 percent of the prairie dogs gobbled it up in recent trials in Montana, Colorado and South Dakota. "These tests clearly indicated that these new mechanized vaccine delivery methods are practical, efficient and affordable," the agency said in a statement.

More tests are scheduled for next summer, and Fish and Wildlife says this first-of-its-kind effort is worth it. A healthy population of black-footed ferrets — North America's most endangered species — signals a healthy ecosystem, according to the agency.

For an even deeper look at the project, you can click on this link to see 12 minutes of B-roll put together by the World Wildlife Fund, one partner in the effort.

If those videos don't quench your thirst for black-footed ferret footage, Fish and Wildlife also hosts a webcam of a ferret named Two-bit, who lives at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado. A word of warning: The ferrets are nocturnal, so there's not a lot of daytime action. At 10:30 a.m. Eastern on Monday, Two-bit was asleep.

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Karin Brulliard is a national reporter who runs the Animalia blog. Previously, she was a foreign correspondent and a local reporter.

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