The bigmouth buffalo, black bullhead and mountain madtom aren't fish that most anglers would quickly identify on the end of their lines. But then, the odds are not great that they'll catch them - at least not in Pennsylvania.

They are among 54 species that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission says are endangered or threatened in the state's waterways - or potential candidates to end up in one of those categories.

Put another way, that means 34 percent of the state's 159 native fish species are in trouble.

Based on what they call a "cutting edge" scientific review of the state's fish, the commission's staff has recommended expanding the list of protected species. But the whole process has run into a firestorm of opposition from mining interests, builders and other members of the regulated community.

As a result, the date for action on the protection has been extended three times, and a final decision, originally expected in October, is not expected until spring.

"There are enormous impacts, both in terms of paperwork and expense on the regulated community," said Henry In-gram, an attorney representing the Independent Oil and Gas Association, the Pennsylvania Coal Association and others.

The commission has argued that the action does not have any direct financial impact because the commission doesn't regulate activities. When a state agency, such as the Department of Environmental Protection is considering a permit, though, the commission may comment on the proposal if it affects a listed species. But the final permit decision would be in the DEP's hands.

But Ingram argued that the presence of a state-listed species would require a permit applicant to gather and submit more information during the permit process. "Any increase in the list is going to increase the burden on anyone having to get a permit from the DEP for any regulated activity," he said.

That, he said, "costs money and takes time." Noting that the number of endangered species has increased even as state officials say water quality is improving, Ingram said, "it makes you wonder whether we all are on the right track."

Ingram made his remarks at an Oct. 30 hearing, which took place at the request of groups questioning the action. Yet apart from Ingram, hardly any critics spoke at the hearing, which instead was dominated by environmental groups who favored the commission's action.

But several weeks later, commission representatives were unexpectedly summoned to the Capitol for an impromptu meeting filled with lawmakers and lobbyists opposed to the listing. Environmental groups said they had not been informed of that meeting.

At that time, some lawmakers said they wanted to hold hearings on the proposed list, and at least one questioned if the Fish and Boat Commission should even remain an independent agency. Unlike state de-partments, the commission [as well as the state Game Commission] is not directly controlled by an appointee of the governor.

After the meeting with lawmakers, the commission extended the comment period on the list until March 15.

The fight over the list appears to challenge the assertion in the state's much-touted 21st Century Environment Commission, which stated that "a healthy environment, a dynamic economy and the well being of our communities are directly linked. To make progress in one area, Pennsylvania must strive for simultaneous excellence at all."

The commission, appointed by Gov. Tom Ridge to identify the leading environmental issues of the next century, issued a report last fall that said the state needed to help promote better land use decisions, protect resource industries such as agriculture and forestry and maintain the state's natural diversity of wildlife. But the report has drawn criticism from homebuilders and others, and Ridge has not indicated whether he will endorse its findings.

The fish commission's proposal would increase the state's list of troubled fish from 46 to 54. The new list would include 28 fish species as endangered, 15 as threatened and 11 as candidates for future listing.

In addition, the commission proposed removing four species from the current list. Three - the silver lamprey, spoonhead sculpin and deepwater sculpin - are proposed for removal because they can no longer be found in Pennsylvania. One species, the Potomac sculpin, would be removed because it turned out to be more common than earlier thought.

The changes stem from a review of more than 11,000 records of fish species, and their locations, that were gathered from databases maintained by various research institutions and government agencies as well as from new surveys.

Pennsylvania State University scientists assembled the information into a computerized system and mapped all the watersheds where the fish were found.

The changes do not necessarily mean that water quality has gotten worse. In many cases, scientists and officials say, the changes may chiefly reflect vastly improved information.

"Does this show that water quality is declining or increasing?" asked Andrew Shiels, the commissions Nongame and Endangered Species Unit Leader. "I can't say yes or no. But I can say regardless of water quality improvements or declines, our ability to further define where species occur, and what numbers they occur in, is better than it was before."

Jay Stauffer, a Penn State biologist who worked on the report, said it is was possible that improved water quality would actually lead to a temporary increase in the number of the fish on the list. That, he said, is because as water gets cleaner, fish that had vanished from the state may slowly move back in. But at first, their numbers would be low enough to warrant listing as threatened or endangered within Pennsylvania. Over time, as their numbers multiplied, they would be removed from the list.

Meanwhile, Stauffer said that while water quality may not have gotten worse overall, it appeared that habitat for many of the rare fish has become more restricted over the years.

As a result, the scientists recommended that more efforts be placed into managing rare fish in a watershed context.

Many rivers and streams have more than one listed species; by looking at them within a watershed, Stauffer said, managers could protect relationships among species that are important within a stream. Also, the new computerized inventory allows managers and scientists to examine how activities on the surrounding land impact - or further restrict - usable habitat.

"We can take a particular watershed and trace historical fish fauna in that stream and compare it with what it was 25 or 50 years ago, and look at what kind of landscape changes have taken place," Stauffer said. "Have there been parking lots put in? Is it more urbanized? Is there a lot more development? Can it be associated with the opening or closing of a mine, or that kind of thing. So we can get a better handle on what is going on."

Legislators have indicated that a hearing on the list will take place in January. The next opportunity for the commission to vote on the list will be at its May meeting.