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Montana man planned to create 300-pound hybrid sheep for hunting

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(The Center Square) – A Montana man has pleaded guilty to two felonies as part of an almost decade-long effort to create giant sheep hybrids to sell to hunting facilities.

“This was an audacious scheme to create massive hybrid sheep species to be sold and hunted as trophies,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “In pursuit of this scheme, Schubarth violated international law and the Lacey Act, both of which protect the viability and health of native populations of animals.”

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth, 80, of Vaughn, Mont., pleaded guilty to a conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and violating the Lacey Act. The Lacey Act aims to combat trafficking of illegally taken wildlife, fish or plants by making it unlawful to import certain products without an import declaration.

Ron Howell, chief of enforcement for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, said the scheme could endanger wildlife in the state.

“The kind of crime we uncovered here could threaten the integrity of our wildlife species in Montana,” he said in a statement.

Schubarth is the owner and operator of Sun River Enterprises LLC, a 215-acre alternative livestock ranch in Vaughn. The ranch buys, sells and breeds mountain sheep, mountain goats and other ungulates. Most of the animals are sold to captive hunting operations, sometimes called shooting preserves or game ranches.

Schubarth conspired with at least five other people between 2013 and 2021 to create a larger hybrid species of sheep that would bring in higher prices from shooting preserves. Schubarth brought parts of the largest sheep in the world, Marco Polo argali sheep, from Kyrgyzstan into the United States without declaring the importation, according to prosecutors.

The average male Marco Polo argali sheep can weigh more than 300 pounds and has horns that span more than five feet. They are hunted as trophies for their long, spiraling horns. The sheep are native to the Pamir region of Central Asia. The Marco Polo sheep are protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, domestically by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and are prohibited in the state of Montana to protect native sheep from disease and hybridization, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Prosecutors said Schubarth sent genetic material from the argali parts to a lab to create 165 cloned embryos. Schubarth implanted the embryos in ewes on his ranch, resulting in a single, pure genetic male Marco Polo argali named Montana Mountain King or MMK. The deposit for the cloning cost $4,200, according to court records.

Schubarth worked with five unnamed coconspirators to use Montana Mountain King’s semen to artificially impregnate other species of ewes – all of which were prohibited in Montana – and create hybrid animals, according to prosecutors. The goal was to create a larger and more valuable species of sheep to sell to captive hunting facilities, primarily in Texas, according to court documents. At one point, prosecutors said that Schubarth offered to sell 11 sheep with 25% Montana Mountain King’s genetics for $13,200.

To get the prohibited sheep in and out of Montana, Schubarth and others forged veterinary inspection certificates, falsely claiming that the sheep were legally permitted species, according to prosecutors. Schubarth also sold MMK semen directly to sheep breeders in other states, prosecutors said.

Prosecutors said Schubarth illegally obtained genetic material from wild-hunted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Montana. They also said he bought parts of these wild-hunted sheep in violation of Montana law, which bans the sale of game animal parts within the state and prohibits the use of Montana game animals on alternative livestock ranches.

Schubarth took a plea deal this week admitting to two Class D felonies punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $250,000 per count. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to recommend leniency at sentencing. Another part of the deal: Schubarth will have to pay a quarter of the criminal fine to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a conservation nonprofit created by Congress in 1984.

The Center Square was unsuccessful before publication getting comment from Schubarth’s attorney, Jason Holden.

Schubarth’s sentencing hearing is set for 1:30 p.m. on July 11, according to court records.

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