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SALMON, Idaho (Reuters Life!) - The greatest threat in the U.S. to the northern spotted owl, an imperiled bird at the center of a decades-old environmental clash in the Pacific Northwest, is no longer the timber industry -- it's another owl.
The federal government says it plans to launch a program to kill or otherwise remove hundreds of barred owls -- originally from the East Coast -- that are overtaking the spotted owl's natural range in Washington state, Oregon and northern California.
The proposal to thin barred owl populations in old-growth forests favored by their native cousins is a key component of a broader recovery plan unveiled for the spotted owl Thursday, outlining how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intends to stem its decline.
The spotted owl was listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in 1990 amid high-profile battles between the timber industry, which fought to retain the right to log centuries-old evergreen trees, and conservationists, who argued that both the bird and the ecosystem it relied on were on the brink.
Years of litigation ensued. In 2010, a federal judge ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service, an Interior Department agency, to produce the recovery plan announced Thursday.
The plan calls for stepped-up conservation of spotted owl nesting sites -- some in areas previously slated for potential logging -- as well as controlled burns in forest lands prone to catastrophic wildfires, and measures to ease habitat and food pressures imposed by barred owls.
"We regard barred owls as the biggest threat spotted owls are facing," Robyn Thorson, Pacific Northwest director for the Fish and Wildlife Service, said during a telephone news conference.
The larger, more aggressive barred owls were first documented in Washington, Oregon and California in the 1970s. They have since made steady gains in displacing spotted owls, which are being disrupted during nesting and are losing out in the competition for mice and other food.
Estimates by government scientists suggest fewer than 5,000 spotted owls inhabit the region, with numbers declining by 3 percent a year. Biologists said a ballpark estimate for breeding pairs in 1990 was 2,000.
The impact of barred owls also promises to be a new bone of contention between logging interests and conservation groups.
Timber industry representatives Thursday criticized the government's plan, claiming it puts too much emphasis on land conservation and too little on encroachment by the barred owl.
"The spotted owl will not recover unless decisive action is taken to control the barred owl," Tom Partin, president of the American Forest Resource Council, said in a statement.
Kristen Boyles, attorney with Earthjustice, said blaming barred owls is not a winning strategy.
"We need to keep the focus on increased habitat protection; that's the key to the owl's survival," she told Reuters.
The government is to release a separate revised proposal in November for millions of acres of public lands in Washington, Oregon and northern California to be designated as critical habitat for the threatened bird.
The designation means federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service must consult with Fish and Wildlife before authorizing logging or other activities in those areas.
Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan