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In a story that seems far too unbelievable to be true, a Montana man has pled guilty to two felony wildlife crimes. Both charges are in relation to violations of the Lacey Act. But that’s not the weird part.

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth, 80, of Vaughn, Mont., is the owner of the Schubarth Ranch. The ranch is known for cultivating alternative livestock animals that were sold to high-fence hunting operations.

According to a Department of Justice press release, Schubarth conspired to create a larger hybrid species of sheep that would sell at higher prices. Over the span of 7 years, Schubarth smuggled parts of Marco Polo argali sheep from Kyrgyzstan into the United States. His goal was to use that material to clone viable embryos. He would then use those cloned sheep to create his hybrids.

What sounds like an impossible idea from a science fiction novel is exactly what he did.

Cloning Marco Polo and Creating Hybrid Sheep

Marco Polo Sheep
(Photo/Shutterstock)

Marco Polo are a protected subspecies of argali sheep native to Central Asia. Larger males can weigh in at over 300 pounds and carry horns that span 5 feet or more. They are highly sought-after by trophy hunters and are a source of big tourism dollars in Kyrgyzstan.

Schubart illegally imported Marco Polo parts from the Asian country. He then isolated genetic material from those sheep parts and sent them to a lab where 165 embryos were created. Schubart then successfully implanted embryos into ewes on his ranch. The result was one live male Marco Polo argali sheep. Schubarth named the sheep “Montana Mountain King” or MMK.

That cloned Marco Polo sheep became a genetic donor for his hybrid operation. Schubarth used the semen from MMK to artificially inseminate several different species of sheep on his ranch. All of the species he successfully hybridized were also sheep prohibited in Montana. The hybrid sheep he created were raised and sold across state lines to high-fence hunting operations using forged veterinary documents.

Charges and Sentencing

According to court documents, Schubarth also sold MMK’s semen directly to sheep breeders out of state. The documents also state that he illegally purchased parts of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Montana, likely for the same purpose.

“This was an audacious scheme to create a 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.”

Schubarth faces a maximum penalty of 5 years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000, and 3 years of supervised release for each count. Schubarth is scheduled to be sentenced on July 11, 2024.

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