The Winkler cactus is waiting. So is the Arkansas river shiner, the Pecos pupfish and the Leedy's rose root. All are considered vulnerable to extinction. None has been formally protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

The rare plants and fish are among 3,600 domestic species awaiting a place on the endangered species list, a status that requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to draft a plan for their recovery. But according to an internal investigation, mismanagement and tight budgets are delaying action to protect them.

The audit by the Interior Department's inspector general paints a grim portrait of an agency that is losing the battle to safeguard the nation's flora and fauna against development, pollution and other human activities.

"Overall, we concluded that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not effectively implemented a domestic endangered species program, and we question whether accomplishment of the program as it is presently structured and funded is feasible," the report released last week said.

In the last decade, the report said, "at least 34 animal and plant species have been determined to be extinct without ever having received full benefit of the Act." Many more will follow without a dramatic increase in funding for the agency, the report warned.

Richard Smith, the agency's deputy director, did not dispute its fundamental conclusions. "The Service acknowledges the overall theme of the report: a lack of sufficient resources to effectively accomplish the goals of the Endangered Species Act," Smith said in a letter to the inspector general.

One of the world's toughest wildlife preservation laws, the 17-year-old Endangered Species Act attempts to protect endangered plants and animals based on the "best scientific and commercial data available." The agency considers candidates for the endangered species list, which now numbers about 550, then takes action to protect those that qualify.

But the process is expensive and time consuming, requiring about $60,000 to list a single species. If the agency were to undertake recovery plans for all the plants and animals under consideration, the cost could be $4.6 billion, the report said.

Noting that the agency spends about $8.4 million per year on its recovery plans, the report said, "it is obvious that the Service's mission cannot be fully accomplished at present funding levels." The result is a huge bureaucratic backlog. According to the report, some 600 species considered worthy of "immediate protection . . . have thus far not been officially listed."

Also, "the Service has identified an additional 3,000 species that are suspected to be threatened or endangered, but action has not been taken to list and protect these plants and animals," the report said.

Among the 34 extinct species identified by investigators were the Chadwick Beach cotton mouse, the Louisiana prairie vole and the Montana woodland caribou. The agency maintains most of the species disappeared long before 1980, but have only recently been certified as extinct. As for the woodland caribou, they said, "the species is not extinct."