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Feds Put Owls In The Crosshairs To Save Native NorCal Species

HUMBOLDT COUNTY (CBS 5) -- It's an icon of the Northern California redwoods: the spotted owl. Commercial loggers used to be the threatened species' biggest enemy. Now those same loggers are taking up arms to protect it from another threat.

At 400,000 acres, Green Diamond Resource Company is one of the biggest timber growing companies on the West Coast. They are also located in a stretch of forest that has become one of the last in California with the northern spotted owl.

Senior biologist Lowell Diller was hired by Green Diamond in 1990 when the spotted owl first became listed as a threatened species. "The company realized they had a dilemma on their hand, because here's a species that is going to be listed, and they were finding it all over the property," Diller said.

To keep cutting trees, the company had to develop what's known in the industry as a habitat conservation plan.

"It's a strategy to protect the resource, in this case the spotted owl, but still allow the company to operate and stay in business," Diller explained.

But trouble is brewing in spotted owl land, and this time it's not the lumber mills. It's a distant cousin of the spotted owl from the East Coast: the barred owl.

"The settling of the prairies created stepping stones, little patches of forest, that allowed the barred owls to move across there," said Diller.

It's been bad news for the spotted owls ever since. "Unfortunately, the barred owls are a little bit larger, a little bit more aggressive, so they tend to win the battle," said Diller. He said they end up taking over spotted owls' favorite nesting grounds in old growth redwood forest.

"If you can't breed, eventually, obviously, the population is going to decline," he said.

The northern spotted owl could go from threatened to endangered and quite possibly extinct. That's why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have stepped in with a plan to save them.

"We are potentially moving forward with some experimental removal," said Ray Bosch with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bosch said the plan is to get rid of barred owls in some study areas to see if that helps increase the spotted owl population. "We're considering a variety of methods, both lethal and non-lethal," he told CBS 5.

Capturing and relocating barred owls to their native East Coast could be a challenge. The only other option: killing them. Diller has already started shooting some on Green Diamond land in a pilot project with permission from the feds.

Diller showed CBS 5 how he lures them in at night with recorded calls. When the sounds were played, the usually cautious birds defended their territory. At that point, they become easy targets. "This distance is actually closer than I would want to be using a shotgun, because you want it to die quickly and humanely, but you want it to be a good specimen," he said.

As many as 3,000 barred owls could be killed. But critics say that's a bad idea. "We question whether killing one animal to save another is ethically justifiable," said Stephanie Bowles Griffin with the Humane Society. "Our concern is that they will remove 3,000 animals, those animals will be killed and others from the surrounding areas will simply fly in and this will become just an ongoing vicious kill cycle."

Griffin doesn't buy the argument that the problem was man made by settlers developing the Great Plains either. "This is a natural range expansion; this is not an invasive species. We prefer to have nature take its course," she said.

Griffin believes killing barred owls could distract from what she believes is the real threat to spotted owls: the timber industry. "It s still a far more significant threat than barred owls," she said.

But at Green Diamond harvesting timber requires keeping up a spotted owl quota. So for now, in a remarkable turnaround, the industry is taking the threatened species' side. "For our company, the more spotted owls the better," said Diller. "That's the position we are in."

No decision has been made yet on whether or not to shoot thousands of barred owls. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is going to release an environmental impact statement on February 28th that will outline exactly where they stand. The agency is also looking for public input.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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