In the dusty offices of a converted old barn in a west Columbia neighborhood, Lowell Adams and a smattering of other conservationists are trying to blaze a path in the world of wildlife conservation. Historically, wildlife conservation efforts in the country have focused on game and endangered species. But Mr. Adams and the other scientists working for the National Institute for Urban Wildlife on Trotting Ridge Way in Hickory Ridge are focused on wildlife that Americans are far more likely to encounter -- the animals, birds and other critters they see around their own yards, parks and cities. "As far as we know, no other group has really been doing what we have been. The whole area of wildlife conservation in urban and developing areas was overlooked for a long time by most of the larger conservation organizations," says Mr. Adams, a biologist who has been vice president for research at the institute since 1976. Among the top priorities of the no-frills institute, which operates on a budget of about $165,000 annually, are educating urban and suburban residents about the needs of wildlife in urban and developing areas, and what they can do to enhance nearby wildlife habitats. The institute also channels information between urban and suburban land planners and biologists so wildlife needs are considered in the land development process. "It's amazing how little land planners and landscape architects talk with biologists before they start into a development," Mr. Adams says. "Biologists can be a big help showing planners where significant wildlife habitats may exist and how they might be protected in the plan. "The institute isn't out to stop development. Our goal is help to guide it so wildlife considerations are taken into account when development happens." The institute, founded 20 years ago by a group of Howard County farmers, biologists and conservationists, has conducted national symposiums on urban wildlife for professional biologists, conservationists and land planners. The next one will be held in the Seattle area in the fall of 1994. Papers presented by scientists and conservationists at the symposiums are compiled by the institute into a reference book for general distribution nationally and in Europe. Mr. Adams says the institute's efforts at getting professional land planners and biologists talking about conservation has resulted in a several government agencies tinkering with priorities so that wildlife needs are considered in planning and development. For example, he said, the city of Fort Collins, Colo., now has a biologist on the staff of its planning department. The institute has also set up a certification program for what it calls "urban wildlife sanctuaries" to recognize individuals, organizations, towns and cities for efforts to create, conserve or enhance wildlife habitats. The institute's 1990 register of the sanctuaries listed 65 sites. It included everything from a 50-foot by 170-foot yard in University Park where the owner maintains plants beneficial to butterflies to a reclaimed Montana mine pit where ponds were constructed, trees planted and cavities blasted to form sandstone outcrops favored by falcons. Most sanctuaries are designed and maintained by people with some level of expertise about wildlife. But for the neophyte, the owner of a home with a small back yard, for instance, the institute offers plenty of guidance. Of particular note is the Urban Wildlife Manager's Notebook, published by the institute with a grant from Chevron, U.S.A. The notebook, among about a dozen publications distributed by the institute, is a series of 18 guides offering homeowners advice on projects they can undertake to create food, water and shelter sources. Topics range from showing how and why to build a backyard pond to explaining the need for brush and rock piles as shelter areas for chipmunks, turtles and snakes. The institute also publishes a list of trees, shrubs and vines that offer wildlife the best cover and food sources. While back yards and parks may seem natural areas for wildlife, the institute's three staff biologists have invested considerable research into the relationship between highways and wildlife, and how road corridors can be enhanced for the benefit of animals and birds. "What we've found in our experience is that once you get a person caring about and protecting the wildlife in their own back yard or community, it won't be long before they care about and get interested in learning about the bigger picture," Mr. Adams says. One of the institute's most successful projects has been a joint educational effort with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, called "teacher packs," he says. During the 1980s, the agency published a nine-part educational series on wildlife, complete with maps, charts and lesson plans, geared to children in grades four to seven. But because of budget constraints, the agency was unable to distribute the series. When the institute learned about the hitch, it stepped in and now distributes 1,800 teacher packs annually. The institute also created a 10th lesson for the series that includes such topics as endangered species, wetland conservation and migratory birds. With many of America's urban areas spreading farther out, the institute sees its mission as ever more urgent, Mr. Adams says. The institute has published a guide for professional planners on how to create wildlife corridors and reserves in urban settings and is writing a manual about how to manage such natural areas.