The traditional approach to managing endangered species has done little to save the hundreds of plants and animals that become extinct each year, says the head of a project to develop a comprehensive strategy to fight extinction.

What he calls "emergency room conservation" spends millions on often futile efforts to save a few high-profile species, while hundreds of endangered species get no help at all, said J. Michael Scott, director of the Idaho Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Unit at the University of Idaho."There is not enough money or biologists to apply that kind of recovery effort to all the presently endangered species, let alone those that will be listed 20 years from now," he said. "We may save some individual species. That is laudable and will attract attention, but it won't get us ahead of the extinction curve."

Each year, the number of species that die out increases, he said. Annually, an estimated 1,000 species, many in the tropics, become extinct, and that number could soon reach 5,000 a year.

Scott's approach to the problem is aimed at protecting a variety of healthy species, common as well as rare.

"The goal of our strategy is the protection of overall biological diversity, and the key to preserving biological diversity is ecosystem and landscape protection."

To do that, you must know what areas need to be protected. The first step of his program is to identify which plants and animals are already living in protected areas, such as wildlife refuges, private preserves, game-management areas and national forests, Scott said.

To discover species not living in the network of protected areas, Scott and his colleagues are using a powerful mapping tool known as Geographic Information Systems. So far, botanist Steve Caico has completed a map of vegetation throughout the state and biologist Craig Groves is developing one showing the distribution of the state's vertebrate species.

Scott said it is too early to predict outcome of the project, but working in Idaho has certain advantages.

"It is still pretty much a wild area," he said. "We can do some long-range planning that people in more heavily populated areas had an opportunity to do, but failed to do, 40 years ago."

The Idaho study should be completed by 1990. By then, the expertise would be available to complete similar surveys in all states, he said.

A nationwide survey could be completed by 1993, at a cost of $20 million to $25 million, Scott said, which is less than has been spent to date on attempts to bring back the California condor, the whooping crane and the black-footed ferret.

Recently, Congress appropriated $300,000 for Scott's project.

"We're trying to solve problems that are 10, 15 or 25 years ahead of us."