Federal agents are taking sides in a battle between two owls in Northwest forests.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it will shoot around 3,600 barred owls to protect the northern spotted owl.

Researcher Stan Sovern knows the owls in Washington's east Cascade better than anyone.

The population here on the Cle Elum study area here has pretty much crashed, Sovern said. Went from 120 in 1992, last year we had about 20 and this year looks like we're going to have less than 20.

Spotted owls are also harder to find, in part because they are less likely to vocalize.

One cause of the spotted owls' silence may be its bigger, more aggressive relative, the barred owl. The barred owl is moving west into the spotted owl's habitat, which is why wildlife officials plan to kill hundreds of barred owls.

Sovern is in the woods looking for spotted owls.

The routine is, you know, I'll give a mouse to the adults and they'll take it and feed the babies the mouse, he said.

The precision vision and flight of a spotted owl is breath taking. A mouse's slightest movement, is a fatal mistake.

The bait is taken and now the mother calls out for her babies.

Like a good mother, she's been calling her children to dinner for the last 20 minutes, and like most moms, she seems to be getting a little frustrated they're not paying any attention to her, said Sovern.

The animated head movements of a juvenile are just what Sovern needed to see. Moments later, he returns with a snapping and restless young owl.

After a quick process of tagging and recording, he releases the next generation of owl back to the woods and its family.

The information he collects will help researchers know if spotted owl populations rebound after the feds carry out the controversial plan to shoot and kill barred owls in this same forest.

Personally it's hard not to want to do something for the spotted owl population considering how severe the decline has been, Sovern said.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife is expected to issue its final decision and plan next month.

Critics argue there is no guarantee the plan will work and it's another case of humans getting in the way of a natural process.

Barred owls migrated west on their own but some scientists say they were forced this way by development in their native habitat.

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