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And I'm Melissa Block.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, an epic struggle between environmentalists and the timber industry landed the northern spotted owl on the endangered species list. Protecting the bird accelerated the decline of the timber industry in the Northwest. Well, now, another owl from the east is forcing the spotted owl out of its territory.

NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports on a radical experiment to fix the problem.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: It's a moonlit night when Timber company biologist Lowell Diller takes me to a forest that used to be a prime territory for spotted owls in Northern California.

LOWELL DILLER: When I first came here and we started the study, there would be another pair of spotted owls like every mile along the creek.

SHOGREN: Barred owls showed up in the 1990s. They didn't cause much trouble. But now they're so many of them; they're pushing their rare relatives out. It's happening across the Pacific Northwest.

DILLER: It's very upsetting to see that happening and there's nothing that's going to stop this expansion of barred owls from continuing, up to the point where they literally cause the extinction of the spotted owl.

SHOGREN: Diller has studied spotted owls here for 25 years. He's desperate to avoid that outcome. So desperate that for the last few years he's being doing something that goes against his core: shooting barred owls.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL RECORDING)

SHOGREN: First, he plays a recording of a barred owl. Soon a real barred owl starts hooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL)

SHOGREN: Barred owls are aggressively territorial. If they hear an unknown bird, they'll try to intimidate it.

DILLER: Oop, one just buzzed us right there.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL)

DILLER: So there's the female right there. See her? She's looking right at us.

SHOGREN: A gorgeous owl perches on a branch nearby. Her light feathers glow in the moonlight.

DILLER: I think you can appreciate standing here how easy it would be - and when I say easy, technically easy or simple - to lethally remove that bird.

SHOGREN: More than 70 times, Diller has lifted a shot gun and killed a barred owl. Diller is a hunter, but he was taught never to kill a bird of prey or anything you didn't plan to eat. At first, someone else did the shooting but that felt hypocritical, so he started doing it himself. He remembers the first time.

DILLER: You know, I was so nervous about what I was doing and emotional, that I had to steady myself against a tree. And I hate it every time I go out and do it.

SHOGREN: The Federal Fish and Wildlife Service took seven years to wrestle with what do to about the invasion. Although it's illegal to shoot barred owls, the agency made an exception for Diller. It can't ignore the invasion because it's legally required to help rare species.

The agency even hired an ethicist, Clark University's Bill Lynn, to help wildlife experts resolve the dilemma.

BILL LYNN: People recognized there's a crisis for spotted owl that barred owls are part of the cause of the crisis. And so they reluctantly, essentially justified the experimental removal of barred owls.

SHOGREN: The Fish and Wildlife Service is starting a four-year experiment to kill up to 3600 barred owls in the Northwest. The advocacy group Friends of Animals is suing to stop the experiment. Its attorney Michael Harris says his group doesn't believe the government can make a moral argument for shooting an animal, even if it would benefit another animal.

MICHAEL HARRIS: To go in and say we're going to kill thousands and thousands of barred owls, literally forever, I don't see this as being a solution. At some point, you have to allow these species to either figure out a way to coexist or for nature to run its course.

DILLER: In this day and age that's an absurd thing to say.

SHOGREN: Diller says humans have altered nature so much already. He says people can and should fix the mess they've made. Where he's shot barred owls, spotted owls have come back. He says come on. I'll show you.

(SOUNDBITE OF A BARRED OWL RECORDING)

SHOGREN: We're on the bank of the Mad River and Diller plays a recording of a spotted owl hooting. He hears a distant response. from a real bird.

DILLER: Let's go up there.

SHOGREN: After a half-hour scramble through a forest dense with brush, we find a two spotted owls up high in the trees. Diller takes out a live white mouse and puts it on a branch.

(SOUNDBITE OF SQUEAKING)

DILLER: I do that squeaking to make a sound like a small mammal.

SHOGREN: One of the owls swoops down, grabs the mouse, carries it away.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

INTERVIEWER: Diller sees a red band with white polka dots on one of the birds. It tells him this is a spotted owl that returned after he shot barred owls nearby. For him, that's success.

DILLER: Probably what makes spotted owls so special is the fact that, as you just witnessed, they fly right up to you. You get to interact with them. It's almost impossible as a biologist not to fall in love with these birds.

SHOGREN: Diller hopes the public will see the value in saving this beautiful creature, even if it means shooting another one. The federal government says if spotted owls come back after barred owls are removed, it may decide to kill barred owls over a broader area.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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