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Finding, and studying, the shy northern spotted owl

Chuck Sisco stands in the invading darkness of the forest and hoots like an owl. More specifically, like a northern spotted owl. A long pause. Bated breath. Then he hears it - an identical hoot, an answer to his call. ``They're here,'' grins the Audubon Society's Northwest representative.

Hooting is about the only way to find spotted owls. And finding them is about the only way wildlife biologists can study these reticent creatures, which have unwittingly landed amid the latest controversy between environmentalists and the timber industry.

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The northern spotted owl is an ``indicator species'' of the US Forest Service, selected to serve as a proxy for the types of wildlife that inhabit old-growth forests. ``We chose the spotted owl ... because, of all the species found in these types of forests, it requires the greatest area for survival,'' explains Richard G. Dearsley, a forest staff officer with the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

Forest Service officials say they have strong evidence the spotted owl population has been steadily declining along with the region's stands of old growth. At issue now: How many pairs of birds are needed to ensure long-term viability of the species? And how much territory should be set aside for each pair?

Timber officials complain that the Forest Service does not know enough about the birds to make an informed decision. Why jeopardize 4,800 timber-industry jobs by setting aside land the owls may not even need? they ask.

Environmentalists, however, are urging the Forest Service to play it safe. They say adequate research will take decades. By then, most of the old growth - and perhaps most of the spotted owls - will be gone, they add.

On one thing both sides agree: More research is needed. No one knows exactly how many spotted owls are left. No one knows why they prefer old-growth forests. And no one knows if the owls can adapt to other types of forests. Even so, the Forest Service is expected to reconsider its earlier proposal and to decide the issue this winter.

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