How Drones And Peanut Butter Are Saving Nation's Most Endangered Mammal

Sep 14, 2017

[clockwise from left] U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist Randy Matchett, pilot Kurt Kreiger, and World Wildlife Fund biologists Kristy Bly inspect a pellet shooter at UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge in Montana.
Credit Nate Hegyi / YPR

In central Montana, drones are dropping peanut butter pellets on prairie dog colonies. It’s part of of an effort by biologists at the UL Bend National Wildlife Refuge to save North America’s most endangered mammal.

Out here, in this part of central Montana, there is no cell reception.

Just a half-crescent moon, a cold, dark prairie and a white pickup truck, where I’m sitting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services biologist Randy Matchett.

He’s sipping coffee - it’s about 5 a.m. - and sweeping a spotlight back and forth.

Suddenly a pair of brilliant green eyes pop out of the darkness.

NATE HEGYI: “Look at those eyes.”

RANDY MATCHETT : “Don’t those eyes look amazing?”

They belong to a black-footed ferret. It's the most endangered mammal in North America and there's only about 300 left in the wild.

“They are these ferocious, masked-bandits of the prairie," says Kristy Bly, a senior biologist with the World Wildlife Fund. "They’re like these little slinkies.”

She says black-footed ferrets depend almost entirely on prairie dogs to survive.

“Prairie dogs are Chicken McNuggets of the prairie, where so many species eat them,” she says.

But in recent years, prairie dog towns across the American West have been exposed to a deadly disease called sylvatic plague. While it’s treatable in humans, sylvatic plague can wipe out entire prairie dog towns in less than a month. And that means no more food for black-footed ferrets.

So Randy Matchett and Kristy Bly have spent the summer vaccinating prairie dogs against the plague using drones.

The sun is up now and a drone named Shep is zooming over a prairie dog town. Every thirty feet or so, it shoots out these little, blueberry-sized pellets.

As the pellets fall to the ground, Prairie dogs begin munching on them because they taste like peanut butter. But they’re laced with a live vaccine that protects those prairie dogs from the plague.

“We have to keep enough alive in enough places to keep ferrets alive,” Bly says.

Since 1994, biologists have released more than 250 black-footed ferrets here on the refuge. But the population is constantly ebbing and flowing due, in part, to sylvatic plague. Right now, biologists think there are around two dozen ferrets living on the refuge. And if they can manage the plague here, the population could grow.

And using a drone helps that happen faster.

Kristy Bly says drones cover more ground and leave less of an ecological footprint than, say, an ATV. But this is the first year they’ve used one, so there’s still a couple of kinks, like when Shep suddenly veers off its pre-mapped path and begins to head home.

Kurt Kreiger, the drone’s pilot and engineer, coaxes Shep to the ground.

“Why is Shep being a little wonky this morning, isn’t he?” he says.

The team huddles around the drone, pulling pieces apart and inspecting the pellet shooter.  

“I’m frazzled a little bit," Krieger says. "But you know, you have clearer minds going, ‘hey, why don’t you just check this?’ Oh yeah, duh!”

Once the team fixes the drone, they refill it with pellets, turn it on, and then the drone takes off. By the end of the day, they hope to expose more than 4,000 prairie dogs to the vaccine. As as the drone disappears, I reach down to check my cell phone - but then I remember there’s no service out here.

No news about the fires ravaging Montana or hurricanes hitting the coast. No Charlottesville or immigration reform. Just a flat, shortgrass prairie and some low red hills.

The previous evening, as the sun was setting, I was out here with Bly and I asked her why it was so important to save black-footed ferrets, especially when it feels like nowadays, the whole world is in crisis:

“I do think there’s a lot in the world that’s sad," she says. "And there’s a lot that’s going on in the world that’s out of our control. And when you come to places like this and when you have the opportunity to make a difference, to bring an endangered species back. It helps restore balance. It helps to restore missing pieces of the puzzle.”

And then Bly sets up a thermal-imaging camera, hoping when the sun sets and the prairie becomes silent and still, she’ll catch another glimpse of the rarest mammal in North America.