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Montana man pleads guilty to wildlife trafficking charges in scheme to clone and sell sheep

Mar 16, 2024, 6:44 PM

Over the course of nearly a decade, a Montana ranch owner and at least five other people conspired ...

Over the course of nearly a decade, a Montana ranch owner and at least five other people conspired to clone sheep and create a larger hybrid species of what is already considered the world’s largest sheep species for financial gain, according to federal prosecutors. (FILE PHOTO)

(FILE PHOTO)

(CNN) — Over the course of nearly a decade, a Montana ranch owner and at least five other people conspired to clone sheep and create a larger hybrid species of what is already considered the world’s largest sheep species for financial gain, according to federal prosecutors.

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth, 80, of Vaughn, Montana, pleaded guilty to felony charges related to trafficking sheep parts from Asia into the United States – a violation of the Lacey Act – with an aim of selling the species to captive hunting facilities primarily in Texas, according to a news release from the US Department of Justice.

The Lacey Act prohibits trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish or plants, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Schubarth faces a maximum of five years in prison for each of the two felony counts and up to a $250,000 fine. CNN has contacted an attorney listed for Schubarth for comment.

‘A larger hybrid species’

Between 2013 and 2021, Schubarth and others set out to create a larger hybrid species of the Marco Polo argali sheep with trafficked sheep parts from Kyrgyzstan to garner higher prices from shooting preserves, according to the Justice Department.

The sheep species, often trophy hunted for its size and long spiraling horns, is listed as threatened under the US Endangered Species Act, according to court documents.

Marco Polo argali sheep, which can weigh more than 300 pounds and have horns spanning more than 5 feet, are banned in Montana “to protect native sheep from disease and hybridization,” according to the Justice Department.

Schubarth, who owned a 215-acre game farm where mountain sheep, mountain goats and other hoofed mammals were bought, sold and bred, is the only person named in the court documents.

The five others involved are described in the documents as residents of Montana, Texas and Minnesota who were involved in alternative livestock husbandry and commercial livestock sales, according to court documents.

Schubarth is accused of conspiring to bring parts of the internationally and domestically protected Marco Polo argali sheep, which are native to Central Asia’s Pamir Mountains region, into the US without declaring the parts, court documents state. Schubarth is accused of engaging a third party to create a cloned argali sheep from the trafficked parts.

Schubarth’s farm – Sun River Enterprises, also known as Schubarth Ranch – mainly marketed and sold live animals and genetic material, like semen, to shooting preserves, court documents state.

He and co-conspirators allegedly performed artificial insemination and other types of artificial breeding to “create larger and more valuable lines of argali sheep,” according to the documents.

“The kind of crime we uncovered here could threaten the integrity of our wildlife species in Montana,” Ron Howell, chief of enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, said in a statement.

According to court documents…

In January 2013, the co-conspirator from Montana entered the US with undeclared biological tissue from a Marco Polo argali sheep that had been hunted in Kyrgyzstan, according to court documents.

Days later, Schubarth entered a cell storage agreement with a company to store and preserve the tissue from a male sheep named Rocky, according to the documents, which add that Schubarth entered an ovine cloning contract in October 2015 to have an unspecified number of sheep cloned from the tissue.

He received 165 cloned Marco Polo embryos in November 2016 at his ranch, the documents state. In May 2017, a pure male Marco Polo argali sheep was born from the embryos, and Schubarth named it Montana Mountain King.

In 2018, authorities say Schubarth began harvesting semen from Montana Mountain King to artificially inseminate ewes in hopes of creating hybrid offspring.

Using Montana Mountain King’s semen, Schubarth and co-conspirators artificially inseminated female sheep species that are also banned in Montana in an attempt to create hybrid animals, the Justice Department said.

Schubarth and others moved the illegal sheep into and out of Montana by forging veterinary inspection certificates, according to court documents.

Schubarth also violated Montana law by obtaining genetic material from the state’s Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, which are the largest native wild sheep species in North America, according to the court document. Montana prohibits game animal parts being sold there and also “prohibits the use of Montana game animals on alternative livestock ranches,” according to the Justice Department.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks are investigating the case. Schubarth is set to be sentenced on July 11.

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Montana man pleads guilty to wildlife trafficking charges in scheme to clone and sell sheep