A national effort to save the California condor from extinction has come down to this: At a recent court hearing on the fate of the bird, there were more lawyers in the room than there are condors in the wild.

Despite an ambitious recovery program financed by millions of private and federal dollars, the number of condors clinging to survival in their last citadel amid the mountains of southern California has dwindled from 40 to five in less than a decade.

Twenty-one more are in captivity as part of a breeding program to replenish the natural population, but the first release of young birds had to be scrapped last year when the Los Angeles Zoo, through a bureaucratic snafu, tamed the candidates. Future release plans have been put on hold while the zoo tries to reverse the taming process.

In the meantime, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says it cannot guarantee the safety of the few remaining wild condors, and it wants to trap and cage all five.

"The California condor is a highly endangered bird threatened with extinction in the very near future," said Jan Riffe of the wildlife service. "If we cannot control mortality, we don't want to take the risk."

Environmentalists fear the move will open the condor's mountainous preserve to development and erase its last slim hope of surviving in the wild.

Zoo officials "think they can breed them for 20 years and then release them," said the Sierra Club's Mark Palmer. "They are dreadfully naive about the politics of the situation."

For the moment, the environmentalists are on top. Earlier this week, the National Audubon Society won a federal district court ruling that forbids the government from trapping more condors.

But the ruling, if it survives an appeal, may deflect only temporarily a debate that has far-reaching implications for the nation's 20-year-old program to salvage its vanishing species. In essence, the question is this: If it is deemed too risky -- or too expensive -- to maintain a species in the wild, is it enough to keep it alive in a zoo?

For some conservationists, the answer is no. "I don't see the point," said Palmer. "We're trying to restore our ecosystem, not sweep it under the rug. It sounds like the Fish and Wildlife Service is turning its back on the whole endangered species program."Both conservationists and wildlife officials agree that, for the California condor, there is some urgency to answering the question.

A carrion-eating vulture with a naked orange head and hulking black body, the condor is a forlorn-looking creature in an aviary. But it is the vision of splendor soaring above a mountain ridge, its 10-foot wingspan spread to catch the warm updrafts that can keep it aloft for an hour without flapping a wing.

For more than 30 years, conservation groups have battled to save the high-flying condor, the largest land bird in North America and a heroic symbol of the wilderness that once was California.

But the condor's natural habits and requirements make it a particularly difficult species to protect.

It feeds on animal carcasses, which were in plentiful supply when the arid wilderness hosted numerous large predators. Today, the carcasses are likely to contain bullet fragments or be laced with poisons to protect livestock from what predators remain. In recent years, at least three condors died of lead poisoning and another was accidentally poisoned by a coyote trap set by the federal wildlife service.

Habitat poses another knotty problem. Despite their diminished numbers, the birds range widely over more than 10 million acres of mountain canyons and brown hills in central and southern California. About 2 million of that is in federal hands. Much of the rest is just east of the densely populated California coast and under heavy development pressure.

The habitat controversy has centered on the Hudson Ranch, a privately owned 14,000-acre tract strategically located in the south-central part of the condor's horseshoe-shaped range. Thermal air currents in the area make it attractive to the gliding birds, and federal biologists have made it even more so by feeding the birds there in an effort to prevent more deaths by poisoning.

At the urging of environmentalists and federal biologists, Congress appropriated nearly $9 million to purchase the ranch as a condor refuge. The money has never been spent, partly because the owner is unwilling to accept the government's $5 million offer and partly because the Office of Management and Budget is unenthusiastic about spending money on a refuge for a bird many believe is doomed.

The owner, Seattle real estate developer Richard Hadley, bought the land in 1981 to use for agricultural development and as a weekend retreat for urbanites. "It's an hour and 45 minutes from the L.A. Civic Center," he said. "We believe the ranch is singularly well-located for home sites. It's high enough to be out of the smog."

There are signs near the ranch, offering lots for sale, but Hadley said uncertainty over the condor "makes it difficult to proceed." Conservationists maintain that developing the site would doom the reclusive condor, a point that is disputed by federal officials.

The Hudson Ranch purchase "does not swing the pendulum one way or the other," said Riffe, who added that the habitat would remain under protection "until the Fish and Wildlife Service or the Interior Department states it has no intention of releasing any birds." According to Riffe, other species have come back from fewer numbers than the condor, but he declined to assess the bird's chances. "I just don't want to venture a guess," he said. "I think there is a chance to reintroduce them successfully," Palmer said. "Certainly our hopes are down, but we're a long way from having no hope whatsoever."