Christopher the California condor floats lazily over the dry grass hills of Tulare County. He looks for a choice cow carcass to nibble and cares not at all that the hopes of a million-dollar federal program ride on his nine-foot wingspan.

Bureaucrats have been harassing other bureaucrats, the Sierra Club has been plotting against the Audubon Society, all because of the uncertain fate of Gymnogyps californianus, the California condor, largest land bird in North America. With fewer than 30 of the huge creatures still left alive in the steep mountain crevices and light brown hills of central and southern California, it is also the closest to extinction.

From a little yellow house in this city 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles, a joint project of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Audubon Society has taken unprecedented steps in the past year to save the bird from oblivion, and in the process ignited a passionate debate throughout the American environmental movement. Several nesting condor couples in the Los Padres National Forest northeast of here have been placed under the sort of intense, long-range surveillance usually reserved for dishonest congressmen. One condor chick has been rescued from neglectful parents, and plans have been made to steal an unhatched egg next year.

Now, in the most crucial step, project biologists using a complex net-and-cannon device have captured an almost full-grown condor.A radio transmitter the size of a cigarette lighter was attached to each wing, and the bird has been set free to unlock the secrets of the condor's comings and goings, and its mysterious decline.

This bird is Christopher, named because he was trapped the day after Columbus Day. With a 4-year-old's gray head that will turn an adult reddish-orange in a year or so, Christopher has a flair for long, fast trips aloft. Audubon biologists Jesse Grantham, Bruce Barbour and Pete Bloom and pilot Larry Riopelle had to scramble when the bird suddenly traveled 50 miles north a few days after being released, but they and project directors John Ogden and Noel Snyder stayed in contact. Christopher has shown so few ill effects from the capture and the attachment of the transmitters that the California Fish and Game Commission is now considering lifting its ban on the trapping and radio tagging of full-grown condors.

To Ogden, the Audubon senior staff biologist leading the project with federal biologist Snyder, the California condor "is symbolic of the wilderness, of the California that was." Conservationists sometimes say people only seem to get excited about saving a "heroic mammal," such as a grizzly bear, but Ogden said the condor seems to generate this same excitement--even in James G. Watt's Interior Department.

This is not a universal view, particularly when the federal government is spending $275,000 a year and the Audubon Society $100,000 to save the bird after an initial $1 million federal investment the first two years. A woman living in Ojai, not far from the condors' principal roosts, wrote the Los Angeles Times recently: "Why are we so obsessed with bringing back the condor in the United States? Let's accept the fact that they are not attracted to what is left of our wilds. After all, there are plenty of them in South America so there is no danger of them becoming extinct."

As a flock of later letters to the Times pointed out, the Andean condor of South America, Vultur gryphus, is quite a different bird. They share the title of world's largest vultures, to be sure, enjoying a meal of carrion or perhaps a sick lamb or two, but the Andean bird has a distinctive white color and the two cannot interbreed.

When University of California biologist Carl Koford began his landmark study of the California condor in the late 1930s, there was one canyon where as many as 36 birds could be seen at once. That well-protected area has long since been abandoned, for reasons no human understands. According to Audubon regional representative John C. Borneman, who has been watching condors for two decades, "if we see two or four now, that's really something."

Koford became almost a cult figure among many environmentalists, and insisted until his death in the late 1970s that the condor be left alone. If an area was carefully sealed off and the newspapers not told about it, Borneman said Koford reasoned, the birds within it might survive. This cautious approach still has supporters. Mark Palmer, chairman of the Sierra Club condor task force, said "we feel that not enough groundwork has been done at this time" to justify the Ventura project's effort at captive breeding and radio tagging.

But Ogden and Borneman argue that the condor numbers have dwindled despite protections, and that only close monitoring can discover if the cause is poison, pesticide, disease, undetected hunting or something else. As for capturing chicks and eggs and breeding in captivity, Ogden said, "There is a real question that we can solve the problem in time, so we need this insurance."