Montana traffickers illegally cloned Frankensheep hybrids for sport hunting

Please do not spend nearly a decade working to secretly clone endangered sheep in a bid to create giant Frankensheep hybrids for wealthy people to hunt for sport. It is very illegal, and the US government will make an example out of you.

Case in point: Arthur “Jack” Schubarth. The 80-year-old owner of a 215-acre “alternative livestock” ranch in Montana who the Justice Department reports pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two felony wildlife crimes—conspiracy to violate, as well as “substantively violating” the Lacey Act, a law enacted in 1900 to combat illegal animal trafficking.

Located in Vaughn, Montana, Schubarth Ranch is what’s known as a shooting preserve or game ranch, where people pay exorbitant amounts to hunt captive, often exotic animals like mountain goats. Or, in this case, extremely large, never-before-seen hybrid supersheep derived from Central Asia’s Ovis ammon polii, or the Marco Polo argali.

With a shoulder height as tall as 49-inches and horns over five-feet wide, the 300-pound Marco Polo argali is unequivocally the world’s largest sheep species. They are also extremely protected, and fall under the jurisdictions of both the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species and the US Endangered Species Act. On top of that, they’re prohibited from the state of Montana in an effort to protect native species against disease and hybridization. Despite all this, Schubarth and at least five associates thought it wise to try breeding new sheep hybrid species using Marco Polo argali DNA in the hopes of jacking up hunting rates.

[Related: How hunting deer became a battle cry in conservation.]

Pulling it off apparently required serious scientific and international scheming. According to Justice Department officials, Schubarth secretly purchased “parts” of Marco Polo argali sheep from Kyrgyzstan in 2013, then arranged transportation of the biological samples to the US. Once here, Schubarth then tasked a lab to create embryo clones from the Marco Polo argali genetic material. These embryos were then implanted in ewes of a different sheep species on his farm, which eventually produced a pure male Marco Polo argali Schubarth crowned the “Montana Mountain King,” aka MMK.

From there, “other unnamed co-conspirators” alongside Schubarth artificially inseminated other ewes (also apparently of sheep species illegal in Montana) using MMK semen. All the while, the sheep scandal grew to include forged vet inspection certificates claiming the legality of their livestock, as well as even the sale of MMK’s semen to breeders in other states. According to court documents, sheep containing 25-percent Montana Mountain King genetics fetched as much as $15,000 per head. A son of MMK, dubbed Montana Black Magic, helped produce sheep worth around $10,000 each.

The genetic thievery wasn’t limited to Marco Polo argali, either. Court filings also show Schubarth pursued similar endeavors to amass genetic material harvested from Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, which he then also sold through interstate deals.” All of this, perhaps unsurprisingly, also violated state laws prohibiting the sale of game animal parts and the use of game animals on alternative livestock ranches.

The crimes unfortunately go far beyond simple greed. These animal trafficking laws are not simply meant to protect conservation efforts—they’re in place to maintain the health of local ecosystems.

“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,”  Todd Kim, Assistant Attorney General of the Justice Department Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD), said on Tuesday, with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Chief of Enforcement Ron Howell adding, “The kind of crime we uncovered here could threaten the integrity of our wildlife species in Montana.”

It’s unclear how many hybrid sheep Schubarth and his colleagues successfully bred, as well as how many were ultimately sold and potentially hunted. PopSci has reached out to the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division for clarification.

In the meantime, Schubarth now faces upwards of five years in prison per felony count, a maximum $250,000 fine, and three years supervised release. He’s scheduled to be sentenced on July 11.