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Rancher, 80, pleads guilty in scheme to create 'giant sheep hybrids'

The Montana man allegedly bought certain sheep internationally to create a larger species for captive hunters in the U.S.
Rancher, 80, pleads guilty in scheme to create 'giant sheep hybrids'
Posted at 6:48 PM, Mar 15, 2024

An 80-year-old Montana rancher has pleaded guilty to felony charges stemming from his role in an almost decade-long scheme to create "giant sheep hybrids," the Department of Justice said Tuesday.

Arthur "Jack" Schubarth facilitated the crimes through his Schubarth Ranch, a 215-acre "alternative livestock" property in Vaughn that he owned and operated, according to federal prosecutors. "Alternative livestock," the DOJ says, include mountain sheep, mountain goats and other hoofed animals that Schubarth was allegedly purchasing, selling and breeding at his ranch.

Court documents state that from 2013 to 2021 Schubarth conspired with at least five others to create another of these alternative species — in particular, a hybrid species of sheep that would garner higher prices from shooting preserves, also known as game ranches under the captive hunting umbrella.

To do this, prosecutors allege Schubarth imported parts of the world's largest sheep, known as the Marco Polo argali sheep, from Kyrgyzstan without declaring them upon entering the U.S. 

The large-horned species, regularly weighing more than 300 pounds, is protected internationally from trade and domestically under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, which categorizes it as threatened. The argali sheep is also prohibited in Montana to protect native sheep from disease and hybridization, the DOJ says.

Nonetheless, prosecutors allege Schubarth would send parts of his imported argalis' genetic material to a U.S. lab to create cloned embryos. He would then implant the embryos into ewes, or female sheep, on his Schubarth Ranch to create a "single, pure genetic male Marco Polo argali that he named 'Montana Mountain King' or MMK," the DOJ said.

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Schubarth and his co-conspirators then used MMK's semen to impregnate other ewes to create hybrid animals, all to create a "larger and more valuable species of sheep to sell to captive hunting facilities, primarily in Texas," the DOJ said.

The department alleges Schubarth and his unnamed partners would forge veterinary inspection certificates to falsely claim the hybrid sheep were a legally permitted species, and occasionally, he'd sell MMK semen directly to other sheep breeders to move the prohibited animals out of his state.

But the argali wasn't the only alternative livestock Schubarth allegedly had his eyes on.

Court documents also allege Schubarth illegally obtained, transported and sold genetic material from Montana's wild-hunted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep across states. Purchasing parts of the species, known as the largest wild sheep native to North America, violates state law that prohibits the sale of game animal parts and their use on alternative livestock ranches.

The widespread case involves both state, national and international law. 

On Tuesday, Schubarth admitted to two felony wildlife crimes brought against him in the U.S., which included conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and substantively violating the Lacey Act. 

The Lacey Act prohibits interstate wildlife trade that has been "taken, possessed, transported" sold or falsely labeled in violation of federal or state law. The DOJ says it's one of the most "powerful tools" the country has in policing wildlife trafficking and preventing "ecological invasion by injurious wildlife."

"The kind of crime we uncovered here could threaten the integrity of our wildlife species in Montana," said Ron Howell, chief of enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. "This was a complex case, and the partnership between us and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service was critical in solving it."

The felony Lacey Act charges each carry a maximum penalty of five years in prison for Schubarth alongside a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release. He's expected to be sentenced on July 11.


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