Montana man used cloned tissue, semen to breed 'giant' sheep for trophy hunters

The skulls of two Marco Polo sheep in the Wakhan Corridor of north-eastern Afghanistan, 2004. (Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty Images)

A Montana man pleaded guilty this week to illegally importing parts of a giant sheep from Kyrgyzstan, then using the sheep’s semen and genetic materials to create cloned embryos and sell giant, hybrid sheep to private hunting ranches. 

According to the U.S. Justice Department, Arthur "Jack" Schubarth, 80, of Vaughn, Montana, owns a 215-acre alternative livestock ranch that breeds mountain sheep, mountain goats and various ungulates. Schubarth’s primary market is private hunting operations, like shooting preserves and game ranches. 

Prosecutors say Schubarth conspired with at least five other people between 2013 and 2021 to create a larger hybrid species of sheep that would sell for higher prices at shooting preserves. 

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Schubarth reportedly brought parts of the largest sheep in the world – the Marco Polo argali sheep – from Kyrgyzstan into the United States without disclosing the import. 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’re protected globally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, domestically by the U.S. Endangered Species Act and are outlawed in Montana to protect native sheep from disease and the kind of hybridization that Schubarth did 

Schubarth sent genetic material from the argali parts to a lab to create cloned embryos, 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, court documents state. 

Schubarth also worked with the other unnamed co-conspirators 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," the DOJ said. "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."

The DOJ says Schubarth also illegally obtained genetic material from wild-hunted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Montana, then 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 (ENRD) said in a statement. 

The Lacey Act prohibits interstate trade in wildlife that has been taken, possessed, transported or sold illegally. The Lacey Act also prohibits the interstate sale of wildlife that has been falsely labeled. 

Schubarth pleaded guilty to felony charges of wildlife trafficking and conspiracy to traffic wildlife during an appearance Tuesday before a federal judge in Great Falls. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.