One culprit: the barred owl, which was described Tuesday as the "bigger and nastier" cousin that is contributing to the demise of the little spotted owl.
The Washington Forest Practices Board took testimony on the worsening problem and one early strategy: federal agents plan to shoot some of the barred owls in a California experiment to see if the spotted owl will rebound.
The barred owls migrated to the West from the Great Plains and prey on the food of the smaller birds, push them out of nesting areas, mate with them and even kill them. Their numbers are exploding, displacing spotted owls, which are in a steep decline, experts told the panel.
"They're just bad news," said Steven Courtney, a scientist with Sustainable Ecosystems Institute, a nonprofit group of more than 300 affiliated scientists based in Portland, Ore. "We don't have a final scientific prediction of where this will all end up, but it is a major threat at this time.
"We don't have another 20 years to study this. We've all had a collective wakeup call. Some of us think all hell is breaking loose."
Despite all the logging cutbacks and other aggressive steps, the spotted owl remains at "significant risk of extinction," he told the board.
The barred owl, loss of habitat due to wildfires and harvesting, and the West Nile virus all are contributing to the owl's steep decline of 30 percent over the past decade in some areas, said Robert Anthony, an Oregon official who works with the Interagency Regional Monitoring Program.
The spotted owl decline already is as significant as one might have expected in 50 years, he said.
The federal experiment, already approved but not yet under way, involves killing some of the barred owls in a small area in the southern Cascades to see if spotted owls reclaim some of their lost territory and grow in numbers. If it works, regulators could authorize shotgunning thousands of barred owls in Washington, Oregon and California.
Brian Woodbridge, supervising biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Yreka, Calif., office, first floated the idea last year. The site in an old-growth forest reserve in the Klamath National Forest has eight to 11 barred owls and 32 spotted owls. The barred owls have already displaced two spotted owl pairs and are crowding a third.
Woodbridge told The Associated Press recently that the modest experiment might result in killing off just enough barred owls to maintain spotted owl sanctuaries in the steeper, higher elevation sites where they have sought refuge. Scientists would give up on low-level flat forests where they are overrun.
Some experts say that even if the experiment is successful, it will be hard to stop the migration of the barred owls.
The owls first migrated to Canada and were noticed in Washington in 1973 and spread down through the forested mountains into California. In some areas, like the Elwha Valley, the barred owl has driven out virtually all spotted owls.
Courtney said the omnivorous barred owl has even moved into suburbia - 30 have been counted on Bainbridge Island near Seattle. The "invasion" would be considered a worrisome development even without the spotted owl problem, he said.
The invasion could complicate matters for timberland owners, who log under habitat protection plans to maintain the spotted owl.
The spotted owl was declared a threatened species under the federal Environmental Protection Act in 1990, primarily because of logging in the old growth forests of the Northwest. That designation led to an 80 percent cutback on logging in national forests and restrictions on private timberlands.
But the number of spotted owls - currently about 8,000 pairs in the West by some accounts - continues to drop, particularly in Washington, where the loss is calculated at 7.3 percent per year.
A new report from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said, "The spotted owl population in Washington is experiencing a prolonged and accelerating decline."
Environmentalists said they will sue unless the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service puts together a workable plan to rebuild the spotted owl population.
The state board took no action.
Ken Berg of the fish and wildlife agency said the government is hard at work on a new recovery plan, including critical habitat changes. A draft is due out next year. Interim steps, including what he called "removal" of some barred owls, could be "a real touchy issue," he said.