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Montana rancher was trafficking, cross-breeding wild bighorn sheep, Justice Department says

by Hungry Horse News
| March 13, 2024 9:30 AM

A Montana man pleaded guilty March 12 to two felony wildlife crimes – a conspiracy to violate the Lacey Act and substantively violating the Lacey Act – as part of an almost decade-long effort to create giant sheep hybrids with an aim to sell the species to captive hunting facilities.

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth, 80, of Vaughn is the owner and operator of Sun River Enterprises LLC, also known as Schubarth Ranch, which is a 215-acre alternative livestock ranch in Vaughn. The Schubarth Ranch is engaged in the purchase, sale and breeding of “alternative livestock” such as mountain sheep, mountain goats and various ungulates. The primary market for Schubarth’s livestock is captive hunting operations, also known as shooting preserves or game ranches, the United States Department of Justice said in a release.

According to court documents, Schubarth conspired with at least five other individuals between 2013 and 2021 to create a larger hybrid species of sheep that would garner higher prices from shooting preserves. Schubarth brought parts of the largest sheep in the world, Marco Polo argali sheep (Ovis ammon polii), from Kyrgyzstan into the United States without declaring the importation. Average males can weigh more than 300 pounds with horns that span more than five feet. 

Marco Polo argali are native to the high elevations of the Pamir region of Central Asia. They are protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, domestically by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and are prohibited in Montana to protect native sheep from disease and hybridization.

Schubarth sent genetic material from the argali parts to a lab to create cloned embryos. Schubarth then implanted the embryos in ewes on his ranch, resulting in a single, pure genetic male Marco Polo argali that he named “Montana Mountain King” or MMK, the Justice Department said.

Court documents explain that Schubarth worked with the other unnamed coconspirators to use MMK’s semen to artificially impregnate various other species of ewes – all of which were prohibited in Montana – and create hybrid animals. Their goal was to create a larger and more valuable species of sheep to sell to captive hunting facilities, primarily in Texas.

To move the prohibited sheep into and out of Montana, Schubarth and others forged veterinary inspection certificates, falsely claiming that the sheep were legally permitted species. On occasion, Schubarth sold MMK semen directly to sheep breeders in other states, according to the Justice Department.

Court documents also describe how Schubarth illegally obtained genetic material from wild-hunted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Montana. Schubarth purchased parts of these wild-hunted sheep in violation of Montana law, which prohibits the sale of game animal parts within the state and prohibits the use of Montana game animals on alternative livestock ranches. Schubarth transported and sold the bighorn parts in interstate commerce.

“This was an audacious scheme to create massive hybrid sheep species to be sold and hunted as trophies,” Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in a statement. “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.”

“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 and Parks. “This was a complex case and the partnership between us and U.S Fish and Wildlife Service was critical in solving it.”

The Lacey Act prohibits interstate trade in wildlife that has been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of federal or state law. The Lacey Act also prohibits the interstate sale of wildlife that has been falsely labeled. The Act is one of the most powerful tools the United States has to combat wildlife trafficking and prevent ecological invasion by injurious wildlife.

For each felony count, Schubarth faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison, a fine of up to $250,000 and three years of supervised release. Schubarth is scheduled to be sentenced on July 11 by Chief U.S. District Court Judge Brian M. Morris for the District of Montana.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks are still investigating the case.

Sarah M. Brown and Patrick M. Duggan of the Environment and Natural Resources Division's Environmental Crimes Section and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Starnes for the District of Montana are prosecuting the case.