JACKI LYDEN, Host:

Despite two decades of work to bring them back, the spotted owls of the Western United States are still on the decline. And now they face a new threat - not from loggers this time from another owl. Lauren Sommer reports from member station KQED.

LAUREN SOMMER: Northern spotted owls certainly love remote, old-growth forest. But they also live right next to urban areas.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING)

SOMMER: National Park Service ecologist Bill Merkle is playing this recording of a spotted owl in hopes of hearing from a real one. It's almost dusk and we're standing in a dense forest near Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco.

BILL MERKLE: I think they're just probably, like, 50 or 60 feet up there.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING)

SOMMER: Was that an owl?

MERKLE: That was an owl.

SOMMER: Merkle races up a steep slope that's covered in brush and poison oak. In the branches above him...

(SOUNDBITE OF OWLS HOOTING)

SOMMER: ...he sees two spotted owls.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWLS HOOTING)

MERKLE: So, this would definitely be a pair. They're hanging out together.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING)

SOMMER: Northern spotted owls got famous in the 1990s when the federal government set aside millions of acres of forest to protect them. That stoked an epic battle between loggers and wildlife groups over their habitat. Since then, spotted owls haven't come back, and biologists believe that's due to this threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF OWL HOOTING)

DAVID PRESS: It's often described as who cooks for you.

MERKLE: Who cooks for you, right.

PRESS: (Makes hooting sound)

SOMMER: That's David Press, another National Park Service ecologist. He's joining Merkle to look for the owl that makes that call - the barred owl.

MERKLE: You see anything from there?

SOMMER: They peer into a hollow high in a tree.

MERKLE: Just at the very base - what are you using - to see a little bit of that barred owl.

PRESS: They're in the old spotted owl cavity.

MERKLE: Yeah.

SOMMER: Merkle looks concerned.

MERKLE: It's a troubling picture for the spotted owls.

SOMMER: Barred owls are an invader, originally from the Eastern U.S. They first arrived in spotted owl territory in Washington decades ago and Merkle says they've moved down the coast ever since.

MERKLE: The barred owl is a little larger. It's a little more aggressive.

SOMMER: Barred owls take over spotted owl territory and in some cases, even attack them. Barred owls also have an advantage because they eat a wider variety of prey.

In places like western Washington, the spotted owl population has been cut in half since the barred owl showed up. The Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to deal with this by taking a new approach.

ROBIN BOWN: Well, basically it means permanent removal.

SOMMER: Robin Bown is a biologist with Fish and Wildlife.

BOWN: We're going to look at all potential opportunities but the most humane way to do it is to shoot them.

SOMMER: Bown says they plan to eliminate barred owls from a few study areas to see if the spotted owls there do better. They also want to see if it's even feasible to remove barred owls by shooting them. And yes, Bown says that will raise a few eyebrows.

BOWN: It's a difficult concept to say I'm going to kill one species to try to save another species. But it's also something that in some cases we need to do.

ERIC FORSMAN: I think there's relatively little we can do about it.

SOMMER: Eric Forsman is a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Forest Service. He says shooting owls isn't a long-term solution.

FORSMAN: To try to control barred owls across a large region would be incredibly expensive and you'd have to keep doing it forever because if you ever stopped, they would begin to come back into those areas.

SOMMER: That's why Forsman says it's looking pretty dismal for the spotted owl.

FORSMAN: I think all we can really do is try our best to provide habitat for spotted owls. In the long run, we're just going to have to let the two species work it out.

SOMMER: If approved, the barred owl removal study, aka owl shooting, would begin next year.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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