The fourth attempt in four years to fund animal protection in Maryland died in the state legislature last week, a victim of excess legislative baggage and misunderstanding, sponsors said.

The bill -- introduced four years ago to help protect nongame wildlife such as songbirds and chipmunks -- was broadened in the last session into a state support bill covering all programs lacking adequate funding from state and federal sources, such as battered spouse protection. It would have authorized a checkoff on state income tax forms to allow residents to contribute to a general fund.

Thirty-two states have authorized voluntary contributions, but Maryland officials opposed the measure on the grounds that tax officials would be overwhelmed with paper work.

The wildlife protection part of the bill would have set up a method for identifying animals, fish and plants that were endangered, said Daniel Poole, president of the Wildlife Management Institute.

Currently, about 500 animals and plants are on the state's endangered list. To fund research into these species, wildlife authorities must rely on fluctuating revenues from hunting and fishing licenses and federal excise taxes on fishing and hunting gear.

Research into species that have been declared endangered by the federal government has more secure funding, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The original bill came to be known as "the Chickadee Checkoff," but it ran into trouble in the Maryland House, "and along the way it gathered excess baggage," said its sponsor, Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery). "The environmentalists didn't do the lobbying they should have, but maybe they thought it was too watered down." The United Way charity group lobbied against it on the grounds that it would interfere with charity fund-raising, he said.

Meanwhile, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service and the state's Department of Natural Resources are exploring other avenues for funding research into endangered species in the state.

Taxing sales of wild bird seed or authorizing a "voluntary federal income tax checkoff that could be tapped to support state fish and wildlife" are among the proposals, said David Klinger, press officer at the federal agency.

While it turned down the state checkoff last year, the General Assembly approved the sale of a wildlife conservation stamp to help fund research for nongame and endangered species. The $5 stamp goes on sale tomorrow at sporting goods stores and state parks.