Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Ariz.) told the House Rules Commitee yesterday that Alaska's largest free-roaming caribou herd could go the way of the buffalo if oil exploration is allowed on the Arctic National Wildlife Range.

But Rep. John Breaux (D-La.) said the potentially rich oil resources of the range must at least be explored as the nation faces $1-a-gallon gasoline, service station closings and a reduced foreign oil supply at a steadily rising price.

When it comes to oil and natural gas, said Rep. Jerry Huckaby (D-La.), "the area in contention is the Arctic range, the greatest potential bonanza for onshore oil production in the country."

The congressmen were jockeying for position before the committee that sets the rules for debating and amending legislation on the House floor.

Committee members put off a vote, scheduling another meeting today.

Udall is asking the panel to permit a House vote on his entire legislative package, which has the support of the administrative and major conservation organizations.

Breaux and Huckaby want the committee to require the House to vote section by section on Udall's proposals.

All three managers re-argued the merits of their approaches, saying each was a balanced way of setting aside more than 100 million acres as national parks in wildlife refuges on federal land in Alaska. Both sides contended their final products would assure access to oil, timber and mineral resources. Industry favors the Breaux-Huckaby approach.

The focus for yesterday's debate was the Arctic range near the Prudhoe Bay oil fields.

Udall said that there are 350 million acres of potentially rich oil lands in Alaska and off its shores, and that the Arctic range, with its sensitive ecology and crucial wildlife habitat, should be the last to be explored. The range is a nesting area for much of the hemisphere's waterfowl, and a calving ground for a free-roaming caribou herd of 120,000.

Caribou cannot co-exist with oil drilling, Udall said. "They either go the way of the buffalo, or we go into the range last" after all other oil prospects have been developed.

Udall said he realized that the range may have to be opened in 20 or 30 years even so.

Huckaby and Breaux said it makes no sense to lock up the best oil prospect in the country in favor of exploring less promising areas.