Government Drones To Toss M&Ms To Prarie Dogs

We hear a lot about drone surveillance, drone package delivery, drone this, and drone that. Honestly, though, the best use of drones has been taking cool aerial videos and posting them online. Until now.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to cover acres upon acres of prairie-dog habitat with vaccine-laced, peanut-butter coated M&Ms. The snacks also include a dye that will show up in the whiskers of prairie dogs that take the bait, allowing scientists to assess the efficacy of the program. And this is all in the name of saving endangered black-footed ferrets which share burrows with the prairie dogs. It seems they were getting the plague from the prairie dogs.

The quads are outfitted with a “glorified gumball machine” that spreads the vaccine tidbits around. Why a quad? They can cover more space with less disruption to the animals’ habitat. That’s a great application in our book.

But if you think this is a case of the USF&WS showing outrageous innovation, consider the way rabies was all but eliminated in Europe: throwing hundreds of thousands of vaccine-doped chicken heads out of helicopters across France, Switzerland, and Germany. You couldn’t make this up.

(Via [Popular Science], where the title is even more clickbaity than ours. Get it? “Clickbait”?)

Headline image: US Fish and Wildlife Service Mountain-Prairie

47 thoughts on “Government Drones To Toss M&Ms To Prarie Dogs

    1. Yes, I know the point of the article involves a group that’s trying to save the ferrets. But, the headline says prairie dogs (ok, it also includes a spelling error as it actually says “prarie dogs”, but nonetheless) and the photo contains none. There’s a bit of a mismatch there.

      1. So much info that was left out of the article. The black footed ferrets eat white tailed prairie dogs. This is important because the white tailed prairie dogs are declining and approaching extinction, which is endangering the ferrets. Prairie dogs are susceptible to plague, which is carried by fleas. Thus the need for the attempted vaccination. They are trying to protect the endangered ferrets endangered food source.

        It should also be noted that the black tailed prairie dogs are far from endangered, with a wide habitat. They are considered a nuisance by ranchers (cows break their legs in the burrows), and are largely unregulated with concern to hunting. The are prolific reproducers, and it has been noted in research that you need to eliminate nearly 90% of a colony’s population, to have any long term effect on their numbers. The black tailed prairie dogs are also affected by plague, but to a much higher degree. They are much more social and live in closer proximity to each other than the white tails, so plague infections spread like wildfire through black tail prairie dog towns. With an infection only needing 48 hours or so to kill an individual, a colony can be completely wiped out in a matter of days. The white tails are less social, and do not have as close contact with each other, so thankfully plague infections are not nearly as devastating.

  1. These guys clearly haven’t seen how fast an Ag Cat can cover a territory with fertilizer pellets. At the (much) lower number density of the M&Ms (so fewer hopper loads), a thousand acres would be just a long morning’s work for one.

    1. This is all a government plot to deprive us opportunities to grab subsidized flight hours. A conspiracy to keep general aviation to the upper middle class and up.
      What makes airplanes fly?
      A- Aerodynamic lift vs gravity
      B- Phlogistin
      C- Thrust vs drag
      D- Money
      The answer whether you are a Navy fighter jock, a United captain, or or a student at Embry Riddle is always D, someone is always being bled for those flight hours, but it is so damn sweet when you get someone else to do it.

    1. With the 5th highest GDP per capita, plenty of land, natural resources, and a liberal democratic society of law and low % wasted on military spending there is a far lower penalty to testing and failing then in other countries. I agree is is cultural but that is driven by people and business less stressed by debt and with access to both savings and finance so able to snatch those opportunities.
      “and a liberal democratic society of law” you say?
      Buncha sheep thieves I say!

  2. I have this mental image of an entire species evolving to instinctively chase aircraft. I’m pretty sure there’s a weapons program and/or science fiction movie in here somewhere. Like those Soviet tank-seeking dogs.

  3. Ahem…

    No M&Ms AT ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    From the original source article:

    “This article was amended on 15 July 2016. An earlier version incorrectly reported that the drones would shoot vaccine-laced M&Ms. In fact the vaccine takes the form of pellets made in-house by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.”

  4. “Why a quad? They can cover more space with less disruption to the animals’ habitat. ”
    Makes sense, the sound of a swarm of angry hornets couldn’t possibly be disrupting…
    This drives me nuts. I don’t see how an airplane could possibly be insufficient for this task. They are also a lot quieter, and (my understanding is that they are) a lot more energy efficient, increasing range and flight times for both battery us and carrying capacity.
    If anyone has real comparison between aerial vehicle efficiency, I’d love to see it!

    1. I’m pretty sure that renting an airplane costs more than buying and flying a drone.
      And a ‘drone’ can fly places where a large plane can’t.
      Maybe the drone flies at 150 feet and let’s loose the bait. Wouldn’t disrupt the animals very much.

      1. An Ag Cat can cover an acre with pellets every *three seconds* while in flight. At the coverage rate quoted in the article, that’s 16 pellets per second. I’m going to hazard a guess that the cost of the pellets is going to be more than the cost of the airplane and pilot, even if the plane, pilot & ground crew costs $1000/hr.

        I think [Torcue] was thinking radio-controlled or semi-autonomous airplane though. At its (much) lower application rate, I really wonder if the RC plane+operator per hour cost really is cheaper than something like an Ag Cat.

  5. Andrea Chen (fallinghawks) had something to say about this. “A colleague of a friend of mine is working on this project and, as can be expected from journalists, the author got a few details wrong. “The baits for use in the drone are round, homogeneous, peanut butter-flavored, and about the size of a marble. They got compared to M&Ms in size at some point. A reporter got their wires crossed and wrote about the baits being ACTUAL CANDY with peanut butter literally slathered on them….There is no candy or actual peanut butter involved. It’s just a product flavored like peanut butter and shaped into round, candy-like nuggets to be shot out of the drone.” From Google+

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