The Interior Department is expected to propose a permanent end to restrictions on the importation of three species of Australian kangaroos, whose hides are used in the manufacture of athletic shoes and other sport products.
The kangaroos, which have been on the government's list of threatened species since 1974, would be removed from the list.
Ron Lambertson, director of Interior's endangered species program, said the agency has concluded from biological studies that the eastern gray, western gray and red Australian kangaroos are no longer in danger of extinction because of conservation measures taken by Australian authorities.
But conservationists and animal welfare groups charged that the proposed change, to be published Friday in the Federal Register, will jeopardize the kangaroo's survival by creating an "insatiable demand for kangaroo skins by commercial interests," as Lew Regenstein of the Fund For Animals put it.
Lambertson said a senior Interior biologist concluded there are now 32 million kangaroos in Australia. When the United States listed the three species as threatened, barring their importation, they were in jeopardy because of droughts and indiscriminate slaughtering by ranchers, who viewed them as pests, Lambertson said.
In 1981, Interior lifted the import ban for a two-year trial period, ruling that Australia had adopted satisfactory conservation measures, such as setting quotas to restrict kangaroo killing and requiring licenses for exporting hides. The Australian government petitioned last year for a permanent lifting of the ban.
In the two-year trial, American interests imported 60,000 kangaroo hides--less than 5 percent of the world market, Lambertson said. The hides are lightweight and durable, making them especially attractive to manufacturers of athletic shoes, according to industry spokesmen.
Animal welfare groups are expected to dramatize the kangaroo's cause by showing a graphic film entitled "Goodbye Joey," showing the animals being skinned alive, decapitated and tortured. A baby kangaroo is called a joey.
Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service spokesman Alan Levitt said the agency announced the proposal early to try to "get our story out before the reaction hit. We know it's an emotional issue, but this is a classic example of where the biological data totally supports this action" under the federal law to protect endangered species.
Levitt said Interior and Australian officials "totally abhor" indiscriminate slaughtering of kangaroos as portrayed in the film. He said both governments require that imported kangaroos be killed by professional shooters, usually with "a clean shot throught the head."