Saving Rare Ferrets With a Drone That Shoots Peanut Butter-Covered M&Ms

There are only about 300 black-footed ferrets alive in the wild, making them one of the rarest mammals in the United States. But these elusive critters are vulnerable to the sylvatic plague, a bacterial disease that's carried by fleas and infects prairie dogs, which ferrets feed on and often steal their burrows to make them their own.

Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a plan to help our ferret friends: a drone spewing peanut butter-covered M&Ms.

Yes, you read that right. But the plan is not as crazy as it may seem. The agency wants to cover the candies in peanut butter mixed with a vaccine against the plague. Researchers have dropped the candies by hand, but "that's very hard to do over thousands of acres," Randy Machett, a FWS biologist, told The Guardian.

Black-footed-ferret
The black-footed ferret is one of the rarest mammals, with only about 300 left alive in the wild as of December 2015. J. Michael Lockhart / USFWS

So the scientists developed a device that's basically a "glorified gumball machine," to spread over a wider area. The plan is to deploy vaccine-covered candies, which the animals apparently love to eat, from a drone over a large area of UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Montana.

The FWS says it is reviewing the proposal, and if it's approved, it will begin on September 1.

Black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) were almost wiped out by the 1970s by the plague and declining populations of their prey, prairie dogs, and were thought to be extinct. A small population was found, and they have been reintroduced to several areas throughout the West after a successful captive breeding program.