The federal government's program to save endangered species is floundering under political pressure, bureaucratic chaos and imcompetent management, the General Accounting Office has charged.

In a draft report, which has not been released publicly, GAO says the Interior Department has deliberately refrained from listing controversial species because they might interfere with politically popular projects. The projects include the $1.8 billion Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the $374 million New Melones Dam in California.

And, while 20,000 species in the United States face possible extinction, the government has wasted its time listing 95 species which "were not facing a high degree of threat to their survival," GAO said. It added that the Interior Department has actually contributed to extinctions with dam-building and misguided recovery programs.

The findings of the 147-page report are vehemently challenged in a 110-page Interior Department rebuttal citing "serious errors of fact and interpretation." GAO's charge that Interior has contributed to extinctions is "completely irresponsible," the department said.

However, Interior officials acknowledged they have been "tardy" in listing species, claiming, "This is a function of limited manpower."

The $15 million endangered species program requires Interior to list species threatened with extinction and draw up recovery plans. By law, federal agencies that build dams, highways or other projects that might damage the habitat of a rare species must halt any harmful project, unless a special exemption is granted.

The program came under strong attack in Congress last year after the Supreme Court halted the construction of the Tellico Dam in Tennessee which could have wiped out the snail darter, an endangered fish.

In a potentially similar case, Interior is refusing to list species of cave harvestmen (daddy-longlegs), which could be wiped out by the New Melones Dam, GAO said. The report quoted an Interior official saying the listing was "highly sensitive" and would create another "Tellico situation."

Interior's rebuttal, however, claimed the delay is justified because of lack of information on population levels. The Army Corps of Engineers, it said, is trying to transplant harvestmen into caves which would not be flooded by the dam.

Several species of fish and mussels that could be rendered extinct by the Tennessee-Tombigbee water way, now under construction, have not been listed although Interior has known of their predicament since March 1976, GAO charged.

Interior's rebuttal acknowledged that two fish, the frecklebelly madtom and the freckled darter, "may deserve consideration" but "have not been given a high priority for listing" since they are found in other rivers.

The entire endangered species program is far behind in its responsibilities, GAO found, partly because insufficient funds and personnel have been allocated to listing species. Department biologists identified 260 species which could have been listed last year. Only 41 were listed.

The biologists say 600 species are ready for listing this year, but only 10 will be listed, GAO estimated.

Part of the problem is inordinate delay as proposed listings wend their way through layers of bureaucracy, GAO said.

Interior's rebuttal acknowledged GAO's "constructive criticism" on this issue and said the department has recently finalized procedures for early review of listings and regulations.

Although the object of the endangered species program is to return the species to a health population, the department's recovery program has performed poorly, GAO charged. Although 60 species have been on the list over 10 years, most have not been reviewed to determine their status, it said. In the last five years only one species has been removed from the list.

GAO also charges that the Bureau of Reclamation, an Interior agency, has contributed to the potential extinction of the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, the California condor and the San Joaquin kit fox through dam building in California's Central Valley.

Interior acknowledges the water projects "may have adversely affected species in the San Joaquin Valley" but says the water system was set up before the endangered species law took effect.