Drones are being used to map parts of Montana to better determine the best locations to reintroduce the endangered black-footed ferret. (Shattil & Rozinski/WWF)

This week in Montana, drones are racing at speeds of 40 mph, back and forth across fields, in an attempt to speed the reintroduction of black-footed ferrets in North America.

There are only about 500 black-footed ferrets in the wild. The two-pound ferrets have been an endangered species since 1967. As agriculture spread across the U.S. plains in the early 1900s, the population of prairie dogs plummeted due to extermination campaigns. Black-footed ferrets were the next domino to fall, as they relied on prairie dog colonies as a habitat and food source.

There are efforts to reintroduce black-footed ferrets in eight states, but they face funding constraints. The hope for this pilot test is that by using drones and 3D mapping software, researchers can quickly and cheaply count prairie dog boroughs in order to estimate the size and density of their populations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the reintroduction of ferrets, relies on those numbers to determine whether an environment is suited for the reintroduction of ferrets.

“Instead of having two guys spend all summer mapping prairie dog colonies, this is a way to use technology to fill out that same data more accurately,” said Kristy Bly, a conservation biologist at the World Wildlife Fund who is leading the efforts to reintroduce the ferrets at Fort Belknap in Montana.

Last summer, it took more than nine weeks to map 7,500 acres at Fort Belknap. This week, the team plans to map 1,000 acres in three days thanks to the drone.


Ed McCaffery, a drone specialist with Topcon gets ready to launch a drone. (Jeremy Roberts/Conservation Media/WWF)

Black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced at Fort Belknap since 2013. Traditionally a team on foot would map out the colonies. This summer, the World Wildlife Fund is partnering with Idaho University, the Fort Belknap Fish and Wildlife department and TopCon to bring drones into the equation.

If this goes well, Bly wants to expand the use of the drones. She could see using thermal cameras attached to drones to track the population of black-footed ferrets, a task she said in the past was a herculean amount of work.

“We can take up to like two weeks — at night — with anywhere from two to four people to find 10 ferrets in an area,” Bly said. A thermal camera could identify the nocturnal animal’s body heat at night to track them.

The need for cheap technologies is especially important given that tribal lands are a common destination to reintroduce ferrets.

“There’s just not a lot of money that goes into sites that would host black-footed ferrets,” Bly said. “When it comes to tribal lands, that funding is even more scarce.”

Recently, Bly helped the Crow Reservation in Montana apply for ferrets to be introduced on its grounds. But first, 1,500 acres had to be mapped. For three weeks, a group of two to four people mapped the land. The reservation ended up missing a deadline because of the painstaking process. It left Bly wishing a drone had been available to speed the process.

“I think we might be able to use drones in a way that allows us to get more ferrets on the ground more quickly in more areas,” Bly said.