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A little after 6 a.m., wildlife biologist Andy Miller makes a call to a satellite phone somewhere deep in the Cayoosh Range, which lies ahead, nearly a four-hour drive from Vancouver.

"So, are you sitting on a spotted owl?" he asked, looking blearily out at the streets of the city where the daily commuter rush is just starting.

"Yeah, we got one," a faint voice replied from the distant wilderness before being swallowed by the hiss of static.

Mr. Miller, a biologist who has been studying spotted owls since 1985 and who currently works on contract for the Western Canada Wilderness Committee, tilted his cellphone trying to relocate the lost signal, then, with a shrug, gave up.

"We'll try again later. At least we know they're on it," he said as we left the city, crossed Lions Gate Bridge and started heading north, searching for one of the last of a dying breed in Canada.

Although spotted owls have been the focus of a recovery effort for several years, their numbers have declined so dramatically that soon there won't be any left north of the U.S. border.

Finding one of these rare birds isn't easy.

But an owl search team, sent out 24 hours in advance, managed to locate one in rugged mountains between Pemberton and Lillooet.

They walked logging roads, hooting until they got a reply, then scrambled through the woods at night with headlamps until they found it.

Camping on a mountain logging road in subzero temperatures, the owl searchers got up before dawn, tracked the owl on its morning hunt and now are watching its every move.

"If it flies, they will follow," Mr. Miller said of the search team.

"But it should sit where it is all day. They don't like to move in bright sunlight."

Spotted owls, a highly specialized species that lives only in old-growth forests, are the most endangered birds in Canada. Although there are several thousand in the United States, only 22 are known to exist north of the border -- all of them are found in the southwestern B.C. mainland, the northern limit of their range.

The birds never were plentiful in the province, but less than 100 years ago there may have been 500 pairs. A decade ago, the population had fallen to fewer than 100 owls. Now it's on the verge of oblivion.

In 33,000 square kilometres of habitat between Hope and Lillooet (including all of the Fraser Valley) and from Vancouver to just beyond Whistler, there are less than two dozen birds left: six mated pairs and 10 singles.

Given such sparse numbers, in such a vast terrain, it is almost impossible for anyone but an expert to find a spotted owl in British Columbia. Mr. Miller, a former member of the provincial government's Spotted Owl Recovery Team (until he quit a few years ago to protest against a lack of progress) helped map their range and knows where to look.

"Finding out exactly where a spotted owl is [can be]extremely difficult. Government biologists know, but they treat it like it's super-secret information," said Mr. Miller, who agreed to take the news media to a spotted-owl site because he feels increasingly desperate about the future of the species.

"Saving the birds in Canada is going to take a miracle," added Mr. Miller, who fears that the provincial government, which is close to announcing its owl-recovery plans, will doom the birds to extinction unless there is a public outcry.

"The government wants to save spotted owls without further restricting logging, and that just can't be done," he said. "At the front end, going in, they said 'no net loss to logging,' and that has compromised everything."

Mr. Miller hopes media exposure will interest the public in the owls' plight.

Under federal law, spotted owls have been designated as endangered since 1986. In 2002, the province established the Spotted Owl Recovery Team and since then has been working on a plan to save the species. In the meantime, logging has continued in areas where the spotted owls once lived, reducing the habitat base by thousands of hectares a year.

Pat Bell, the Minister of Agriculture and Land, said devising a workable plan to save the birds has been difficult but his government has not given up.

"We are looking at all options. We are not ruling out anything at this point," he said in a recent interview.

"It is a very complex situation. People, I guess, need to wrap their minds around whether or not you want to recover the species. If you do decide to recover the species then you have to be prepared, I think, to take fairly strong action."

Some people believe that a recovery plan might not be doable, given how few owls are left and the current, fragmented state of their old-growth habitat.

"Well, that's one of the pieces of advice we're looking at very closely," Mr. Bell admitted. "There is no point in entertaining a recovery strategy if it is not going to be successful."

He said one of the things he tells his staff constantly is: "Let's be practical about this."

Mr. Bell said a plan will be out soon, but he couldn't say when.

"I am confident that the steps that we are taking are going to be the right ones. And I would just ask for a little bit of patience on the part of people to allow us to present that strategy," he said.

But Mr. Miller believes the plan has been delayed because the Liberal government doesn't want to handicap logging in southern B.C.

"I think at a very minimum we have to stop all old-growth logging in southern B.C.," he said. "That might not save the birds, but at least it will preserve the habitat they are dependent on. That way there's hope for the future.

"Without habitat, any plan is just designed to fool the public . . . and I think that is all the government really wants to do: to save face by making sure the owls don't go extinct before the 2010 Olympics."

While government officials have been studying the problem, the spotted-owl population in B.C. has plummeted, dropping nearly 70 per cent between 1992 and 2002.

Mr. Miller said that in five or six years, spotted owls will be extinct in Canada.

But the species will still exist. In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, where fierce timber wars were fought before large segments of forest were set aside, there are still about 6,000 spotted owls. In B.C., those birds are regarded as a possible future source for a restocking program.

But even the U.S. owl population is sliding, dropping 5 per cent a year. The steady rate of decline raises the possibility of North American extinction in 20 years.

"They have done a lot more in the U.S. than we have done in Canada, but even their plan isn't working," Mr. Miller said. "It really is frightening."

Habitat fragmentation by logging is the No. 1 problem for spotted owls in both countries.

But in recent years another equally serious threat has emerged. Barred owls -- larger, more aggressive birds that used to be found only east of the Rockies -- have barged into the Cascade Mountains of southern B.C. and northern Washington State, taking over spotted-owl habitat.

"Now when you find a spotted owl, you can look around and find a barred owl over here, over here, over here," Mr. Miller said, gesturing with a finger to suggest a bird surrounded by competitors.

Barred owls sometimes attack and kill spotted owls, but more often they hurt them by pushing them out of good habitat into marginal areas, where they starve. Sometimes they breed with them, producing fertile but genetically altered offspring.

Both Canadian and U.S. wildlife biologists are talking about one possible strategy: shooting barred owls to protect spotted owls. But that raises the alarming and unpalatable spectre of killing one species to save another.

"Nobody wants to kill barred owls, that's for sure," Mr. Miller said with a sigh. "But something needs to be done."

In the 1980s, when environmentalists in the Pacific Northwest began demanding huge areas of old growth be saved to protect spotted owls, logging trucks sported bumper stickers reading: "Save a logger. Kill an owl."

That attitude was more than just talk. Biologists say they have heard rumours about loggers shooting owls, and a few years ago found the remains of a radio-tagged bird. It's leg tags and a signal transmitter affixed to a tail feather were retrieved in an area that would have been designated off-limits to logging had the owl nested there. The tags could be removed only by cutting the owl's feet off.

Spotted owls are now so few and far between that they are having difficulty finding each other in mating season. This raises another possible solution: captive breeding.

"It's never been tried," Mr. Miller said. "Nobody knows if it can be done. These are such specialized birds. It's one thing to breed a generalist [species that can survive in a wide range of habitat] but spotted owls are locked in on old-growth forests and they feed mostly on flying squirrels, which in turn are dependent on a type of fungus that only grows in old-growth forests.

"Even if you could breed them. What's the point unless there is habitat to release them into?"Driving along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, from Vancouver to Whistler, Mr. Miller looked at the endless vista of forested mountains, most of it now second growth, and said: "This used to be spotted-owl habitat all along here. Now you can't find a single one anywhere."

About two hours past Whistler, we turned onto a long abandoned logging road. Below, in the valley bottom, the old growth has been cut. But above, on a steep slope, are groves of Douglas fir hundreds of years old.

We drove up into the old forest, following Geoff Senichenko, director of research and mapping for Western Canada Wilderness Committee, who in turn was following a GPS route he laid down early that morning as he tracked the owl.

He and a colleague had a bird located in a tree, deep in the gloomy forest.

Sweating and out of breath after a steep climb, he pointed to a tree: "There."

Nearly 30 metres up, perched in dark shade, was the hunched figure of a spotted owl, with a squirrel clutched in one foot.

Black in silhouette, with a rounded head and sloping shoulders, it looked like a hooded religious figure, shrouded in a cloak of darkness. For a long time it didn't move. Then one of the owl trackers hooted, hoping the imitated sound of a female spotted owl would bring the bird into the open.

The owl, about 45 centimetres tall, opened two dark eyes and blinked.

The adult male has an abandoned nest nearby. Last year its mate was apparently killed by a hawk, which left some feathers behind. Now the isolated owl sits alone in the woods, calling at night for a female that never answers. That's how the trackers found it, following its plaintive hoots through the empty woods.

Mr. Miller said the owl will probably never find another female and will likely end its life here, due to either predation or starvation.

"I give it one or two years at the most," he said. "The situation is pretty bleak."

One of the owl trackers hooted again and the spotted owl tilted his head to look down at us. Then, echoing through the woods from far up the mountain, came a faint reply.

"That's a barred owl," said the tracker, breaking off his calls so he doesn't bring the intruder closer.

After that, we sat in the woods in silence, looking up at one of the last spotted owls in Canada, and feeling helpless.

"It should never have come to this," Mr. Miller said. "I know it looks hopeless, but we have to do everything we can to save these birds. You just can't give up on a species."

On the brink

The spotted owl is Canada's most endangered bird. Down to a population of just 22, the medium-sized, round-headed owl can be found in remnant stands of old-growth forest only in southwestern British Columbia, although there are several thousand in the United States. Spotted owls are slow-flying birds that become easy prey to great horned owls when they stray into clearcut areas. In B.C., about 3,000 hectares of forest are harvested annually in spotted owl habitat.

Quickly declining

Estimate

1992: 100 pairs

2003: 33 pairs

Known pairs

2005: 6 pairs

SOURCE: ENVIRONMENT CANADA