One thing to remember about the decision to shoot barred owls in Oregon, Northern California and Washington is this: It’s a test, not a final decision on the best way to deal with a bird causing problems for the northern spotted owl.

The northern spotted owl is surely the best-known threatened species in the Northwest. A lover of old-growth timber, its numbers have declined. It was given protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, a move that was a major factor in the decline of logging in Oregon, Washington and Northern California.

Even with the listing, the owl’s numbers have continued to decline, thanks in part to the barred owl. Unlike the spotted owl, a picky eater and choosy about where he lives, the barred owl is much less fussy about both. It’s a bit larger and more aggressive than its spotted cousin and willing to pick on the latter if the need arises. Get rid of the barred owl, then, and the spotted owl is likely to have a better chance of survival, so the thinking goes.

Based on that, the wildlife service has decided to begin a four-year experiment in killing barred owls for the benefit of spotted owls. Two areas in Oregon, in the Coast Range west of Salem and in the Klamath Mountains north of Roseburg, will be among the four nationwide in which the experiment will be conducted beginning next year.

Researchers expect to kill as many as 3,600 owls during the experiment. If the results mimic those of a smaller one in Northern California, spotted owls will return once the barred owls are gone.

Only then will forest managers face the tough questions the conflict between the two birds raises. At the top of the list: Barred owls have been moving westward for more than 100 years. The government should not halt that trend.