A $1 million program to save North America's largest bird from extinction faced collapse or serious delay today when the National Audubon Society threatened to quit the project unless state restrictions on monitoring the California condor are relaxed.

M. Rupert Cutler, senior vice president of the society, said if scientists are not allowed to track enough of the giant birds by radio to discover where they feed and what may be killing them, they would likely judge the program worthless.

"We would have to turn our resources to other programs. . . . That would be tragic," he said.

The objections from the society, which provides the project with almost all of its staff and $100,000 annually, reflect a raging debate among scientists about how to protect threatened species.

Some scientists prefer simply to secure the condors' habitats and leave them alone, while others insist that feeding and nesting habits must be studied to determine, for instance, if poisons in dead rats eaten by condors might be threatening their existence.

The situation has become particularly urgent in the case of the California condor because not more than 30, and perhaps as few as 20, of the birds exist.

John Ogden, a society biologist and codirector of the condor program, said today that "it's time we quit straddling the fence on this issue."

He has been unhappy since California's fish and game commission turned down a request last month from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, cosponsor of the condor project, for permission to trap at least two and perhaps as many as six condors and fit them with small radio transmitters.

The commission instead told the society and federal scientists working in the condor's mountain habitat northwest of here that they could trap condors to find a female to mate with Topatopa, the male condor at the Los Angeles zoo.

The commission said that one or two condors could be tagged if a female is not found but that none can be tagged if a mate for Topatopa is found first.

Brian Kahn, a commission member and former Sonoma County supervisor who opposed all such tagging, said he was moved by suggestions from a special scientific committee that the tiny, 40-gram transmitter could hinder the bird's ability to hunt or mate.

John C. Rogers Jr., acting director of the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, told the commission that the transmitter was no bigger than a "lighter" and no more difficult or painful to attach than an earring to a pierced ear. But, Kahn said, "we don't want to get involved in something that would interfere with their mating habits, because with these birds, that's where it's at."

Cutler said he would meet Tuesday with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Robert A. Jantzen but added that Jantzen has already said "he did not favor going back" to the California commission for another vote.

The commission appeared to have been divided 3 to 2 on imposing the new tagging restrictions, Rogers said today as he expressed some hope for a reversal.

The Fish and Wildlife Service is spending about $250,000 annually to try to save the condor, but some of that is funnelled through the National Audubon Society to avoid federal hiring restrictions. All but one of the eight condor project staffers in Ventura are society employes, Ogden said.

He said they would continue to set up the mortar-propelled nets used to trap immature condors for the program but would not try to trap any until the dispute is resolved. He said all the scientists support the recent successful taking of a condor chick from its nest to raise in the San Diego zoo and a plan to take another egg next year.