EVERYBODY'S heard about wolves and grizzly bears - the threats of extinction and the controversial efforts to protect them, especially in and around Yellowstone National Park.
But according to some government biologists and environmental groups, populations of less well-known wild animals - lynxes, wolverines, fishers, and martens - also are dwindling to dangerous levels.
From Maine to the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest they are losing habitat to logging and other development, yet without official protection they're still being trapped and hunted in some areas. And, like the spotted owl and other problematic critters seen as indicators of ecological health in the wild, these ''forest carnivores'' now are the subject of lawsuits under the Endangered Species Act.
''We're not talking about snails or bugs here. We're talking about some pretty charismatic species,'' says William Snape, legal director for Defenders of Wildlife, a private conservation group.
In federal district court in Washington this week, Defenders of Wildlife and a dozen other environmental and animal-protection groups from Massachusetts, Maryland, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, and Washington State sued the United States Department of Interior and the Fish and Wildlife Service for refusing to list the lynx as threatened or endangered.
The case carries heavy political baggage, even before any arguments are heard in court. It presents a direct challenge to the Clinton administration's efforts at ''ecosystem management'' and working out conflicts before what many see as the ''Draconian'' Endangered Species Act comes into play.
And it confronts recent congressional actions ordering ''salvage'' logging to get around environmental laws and also declaring a moratorium on listing new species under the Endangered Species Act, both of which were attached as ''riders'' to appropriations bills.
Other species in the forest carnivore group are the wolverine (the largest member of the weasel family), the fisher (a brown, housecat-sized predator prized for its pelt), and its smaller cousin the marten. Of these three, the wolverine and the fisher also have been recommended for listing under the Endangered Species Act.
''The fact that three of these [four] species have been petitioned for listing under the ESA should raise a red flag,'' says Tom Skeele, director of the Predator Project, a private advocacy group based in Bozeman, Mont. ''Grizzly bears and wolves are not the only 'charismatic megafauna' in biological trouble.''
Similar to the more-numerous bobcat, the lynx is distinguishable by its extraordinarily large and furry paws, which enable it to catch snowshoe hares (its main source of food) in winter. Like the other forest carnivores, it is an elusive animal that makes its home in mature forests.
No one knows for sure how many have survived its main predator (humans) or habitat destruction. But experts say probably fewer than 1,000 lynxes remain across its historic 14-state range with reproducing populations only in Maine, western Montana, and the Cascade Mountains of Washington.
''We are clearly losing the lynx to habitat destruction, trapping, hunting, and loss of its prey base,'' says Jasper Carlton, director of the Biodiversity Legal Foundation in Boulder, Colo., which conducted a two-year study of the lynx.
After months of fact-gathering and consideration, US Fish and Wildlife Service officials from the Denver regional office reported that the lynx had suffered ''significant declines'' and should be given federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. The lynx, according to these government experts, had become ''endangered'' (faced with extinction) in the Northeast, Great Lakes, and southern Rockies states and ''threatened'' (likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future) in the Northwest and northern Rockies states.
Biologists from other regional offices concurred. But the recommendation was overruled by senior Fish and Wildlife Service officials at agency headquarters in Washington who cited the lack of ''any conclusive evidence of biological vulnerability or real threats to the species in the contiguous 48 states.''
Environmentalists charge that senior agency officials are refusing to list the lynx and other forest carnivores in order to avoid the hassle it could lead to with conservative lawmakers (especially those from the West) who are trying to amend or do away with the Endangered Species Act.
''We simply want the federal government to obey the law and list a species on the brink of extinction based solely on established scientific standards,'' says Mr. Snape of Defenders of Wildlife.