Here’s how peanut butter snack may save endangered ferrets

A captive-bred black-footed ferret observes its new surroundings in Montana.

A captive-bred black-footed ferret observes its new surroundings in Montana.

The government plans to use drones and peanut butter to save an endangered animal officials once thought was extinct.

New video of the collaborative (and tasty) effort to save the black-footed ferret doesn’t however, start with North America’s rarest mammal. It starts instead, with their prey: prairie dogs.

For the last 15 years, Dr. Tonie Rocke, a research scientist at the US Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center, has been working with other scientists to develop vaccines, including the one she hopes will save the ferrets. Both black-footed ferrets and prairie dogs are highly susceptible to the Sylvatic plague, and once a prairie dog colony is infected, the disease can spread quickly. Without their primary source of food, black-footed ferrets can’t survive.

Scientists knew they needed to figure out how to keep the prairie dogs disease-free, but were in a race against time — there are only several hundred black-footed ferrets in existence.

That’s where the drones come in.

Kurt Kreiger, the owner of Model Avionics, based in Billings, Montana, says he was listening to the radio and heard a story about the plight of the black-footed ferret. He remembers saying, “I can do that!”, when he heard that the scientists were looking for a way to get the vaccine to the animals, and he reached out to offer his assistance.

But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. The biggest challenge facing the teams, according to Kreiger, was the bait itself. “The inconsistency of size…they (the pellets) weren’t exactly the same size, they weren’t exactly round, you had to keep them frozen, otherwise they’d get too soft.”

But why peanut butter? Rocke says it was all trial and error. Testing peanut butter, sweet potato and blueberry, she says “peanut butter was the clear favorite!”

After working with batches and batches of the mix — which includes peanut butter, corn meal, and gelatin — Kreiger says they’re nearing the finish line. “This is the winner. We’re so close right now.”

This summer, teams fanned out across Montana, Colorado and South Dakota, using the drone to fire blue, peanut butter-flavored pellets laced with the vaccine. The US Fish and Wildlife Service called it a success, saying 60% to 90% of the prairie dogs snacked on the pellets.

The drone, which will go back out with teams next summer for more testing, is about the size of a large truck tire, according to Kreiger.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman Ryan Moehring says this undertaking is innovative because of how it’s being targeted.

“What’s really interesting about this project is that we’re not distributing the vaccine pellets for the species that we’re trying to save,” but instead, targeting the prairie dogs.

One partner in the effort, the World Wildlife Fund, put together video of the project, and Fish and Wildlife also hosts a webcam of a ferret named Two-bit, who lives at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery in Colorado.

Marlena Baldacci