While the snail darter seems to be losing its highly-publicized battle for survival in Tennessee against powerful energy interests, the humble sage grouse has scored a litte-noted victory out in the Northern great Plains.

Last Spring, even as this year's oil crisis was bubbling up, a group of investors in a wildcat drilling operation were ready to set up a rig in a stretch of sage brush in Carbon County, Wyo.

At the same time, however, the neighborhood sage grouse were preparing to get on with their annual strutting. Grouse consider strutting essential to making more grouse.

Government regulations forbid oil drilling in nesting areas during the grouse mating season, which lasts from mid-March through June. But Davis Oil Co. drillers asked the government to let them ignore the regulation in this case.

An employee of the Interior Department responded that "at this time, available data suggests that noise from around-the-clock drilling operations tend to supress sage grouse strutting activities . . . . Since there is a lack of research data on this problem . . . the Bureau [of Land Management] is proposing a research study to determine these effects. However, because of our planning system and budget requirements, we do not anticipate starting the field work for at last three years.After this study has been completed, the data may show that variances of this type may be granted."

Not exactly the gun-totin', rough and tumble wildcatters of frontier days, when a man did what a man had to do.

A few feathers were ruffled among Davis employes, who forwarded the letter to Rep. Wilson (D-Tex.). Wilson circulated it among his colleagues and sent a copy to the president.

"I told him that apparently some members of his administration didn't feel the energy crisis was quite the moral equivalent of war," Wilson said recently.

The letter was so humorous that people had trouble believing it was real, Wilson added, "but it really is a serious indication of the way that this country is choking itself to death."

Despite such grousing, oil interests, environmentalists and spokesmen for the Interior Department seem to have reached a tenuous state of harmony for the moment concerning the sanctity of the bird's strutting requirements -- and the need for fewer such letters.

"We took the whole thing in stride," said Davis official Robert McDonald. "The fact that the letter was circulated all over the United Sates was an embarrassment to Davis . . . though, of course, it is a very ridiculous letter."

Interior Department spokesman Paul Herndon called the grouse strut issued a "red herring," in that it involved only a small acreage and a few months out of the year. In any case, he added, the department has its job.

"Okay, the president has made a statement about the energy crisis -- but that doesn't do anything to the laws on the books," he said.

The oil companies are anxious to show that they are sensitive to valid environmental concerns, and environmentalists are equally anxious to avoid backlash against such environmental regulations in the name of progress, sources on both sides pointed out. Accordingly, they are allied in wishing to avoid what one source termed "bureaucratic silliness."

The presence of Indian arrowheads, elk calving season, the tracks of a blacknosed frret, or a variety of other considerations can hold up approval of a drilling site, according to oil company and government spokesmen.

Bruce Hamilton, a wildlife biologist and Sierra Club official, emphasized, "There are ways to accommodate both wildlife and oil exploration. Maybe not in every case, but it's the approach we ought to be considering." Grouse are not an endangered species. In fact, one reason for saving them apparently is so people can shoot them. "They are an important part of the state's hunting economy," Hamilton said.

The strutting grounds are particularly important because the grouse have only a three-year lifespan, with only a couple of season opportunites for reporducing, Interior's Herndon explained.

Grouse strutting grounds are "site specific," Hamilton amplified. "They're ancestral. You can't just move them."

The grouse use them only around sunrise and sunset for their colorful mating dance, in which they puff up their feathers and make noises with their air sacs to attract the females, he said.

Ironically, he added, one of the most popular grouse strutting areas is located near the end of the runway at Jackson Hole, Wyo. airport. Yet the noise of jets apparently does not disturb their mating.

"They may have moved in after the airport was there," Hamilton suggested, "so they may consider it natural."

Ron Wenke, the Bureau of Land Management official who wrote the controversial grouse letter, said in a telephone interview from his office in Carbon County, "If I'd known it was going to travel around the country, I would have explained a few things a bit more clearly, so that people not familiar with the situation would understand."