A US man has pleaded guilty to two felony wildlife crimes as part of an almost decade-long effort to create “giant sheep hybrids” which he planned to sell to captive hunting facilities.

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth of Vaughn, Montana, is the owner and operator of Sun River Enterprises LLC, also known as Schubarth Ranch.

The 215ac ranch is involved 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.

Giant sheep

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.

The 80-year-old brought parts of the largest sheep in the world, Marco Polo argali sheep from Kyrgyzstan into the US without declaring the importation.

The breed are native to the high elevations of the Pamir region of Central Asia, with males weighing over 300 pounds with horns spanning more than five feet.

They are protected internationally by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, domestically by the US Endangered Species Act and are prohibited in the state of Montana to protect native sheep from disease and hybridisation.

Cloned embryos

Schubarth sent genetic material from the argali parts to a laboratory to create cloned embryos.

He 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 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.

In order 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.

Schubarth sold MMK semen directly to sheep breeders in other states.

He also illegally obtained genetic material from wild-hunted Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep in Montana.

Audacious scheme

Assistant attorney general Todd Kim of the US Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD) said: “This was an audacious scheme to create massive hybrid sheep species to be sold and hunted as trophies.

“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 Lacey Act prohibits interstate trade in wildlife that has been taken, possessed, transported or sold in violation of federal or state law.

It also prohibits the interstate sale of wildlife that has been falsely labeled.

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 US District Court Judge Brian M. Morris for the District of Montana.

The “complex case” followed an investigation by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP).