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Saving Black-Footed Ferrets with Drone Technology

The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered mammals in North America, with only 300 left in the wild today. Prairie dogs are key to their survival as both a food source and the use of their burrows for shelter.

The Project

In June 2015, a partnership was formed between the World Wildlife Fund, Behron LLC, Topcon Positioning Systems, the Fort Belknap Fish & Wildlife Department, and Idaho State University.

This unique team came together to explore using new technologies in hopes of finding better ways to assess prairie dog habitat for black-footed ferrets.

By utilizing an uncrewed aerial system (UAS or drone) and GIS technology, Behron was able to design and implement a program to map and quantify critical habitat for black-footed ferrets on the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana.

The Process

Over the course of two days, eleven drone flights were completed, capturing nearly 5,500 individual photographs in a controlled and safe manner. The 3 cm per pixel resolution photographs were processed into 2D & 3D photomaps, or ortho-mosaics, showing in great detail the location of the prairie dog colonies with individual mounds identifiable.

These photomaps were then analyzed with advanced image processing and GIS software to quantify both the extent and density of prairie dog burrows.

The Challenges

Numerous challenges were overcome in order to successfully complete this project. These included getting all of the appropriate flight permissions from the FAA, coordinating teams located in 5 different states, and flying in extremely challenging wind conditions.

The Conclusion

With this information, researchers can:

  1. Determine how many ferrets might be supported in the reintroduction area on Fort Belknap &
  2. Monitor change over time, enabling a better understanding of the impact of black-footed ferrets on prairie dog colonies.

A Historic Project

This project was historic in numerous ways and provided both the World Wildlife Fund and the Fort Belknap Fish & Wildlife Department with practical experience in the use of drone imaging technology in support of ongoing efforts to reintroduce and restore the black-footed ferret to its historical place on the great plains of North America.

Thank You

Thanks to the hard work and dedication of all the members of this team, methodologies and approaches to wildlife conservation were devised, which hopefully will result in more effective programs, lower costs, and improved results.


"This program demonstrates how a carefully planned and executed UAS project can provide quality information and advance an organization's goals" ~ Ron Behrendt