Montana man charged by feds for illegally breeding, trafficking hybrid Asian sheep

Vaughn man dubbed clone ‘Montana Mountain King’

By: - February 7, 2024 1:41 pm

Photo illustration by Getty Images.

A Vaughn man was charged this week with federal conspiracy and trafficking for illegally cloning, breeding and selling large-horned sheep native to Asia, their hybrid offspring, and DNA to game farms and livestock breeders in other states.

Arthur “Jack” Schubarth was charged in federal court in Great Falls on Monday after entering into a plea agreement with the U.S. government in which he will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy and one count of trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act. The act prohibits people from selling, transporting or buying any wildlife through interstate commerce when the person knew it was being transported or sold in violation of federal law or regulations.

The scheme ran from January 2013 through at least October 2022 and involved Marco Polo argali sheep, which are the largest of any wild sheep, weighing more than 300 pounds, and have the largest horns of any wild sheep, according to the court documents. They are native to the high elevations of the Pamir Mountains region that includes Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and China.

The animals are listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act in the U.S. and an Appendix II animal under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

That means that the export and import of the animals and their body parts is tightly regulated and requires permits, as the CITES classification for the animal means that it could become extinct if trade of the species is not regulated. The animal is also prohibited in Montana under state law. But they are still trophy hunted in places like Tajikistan, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan despite their protected status because of their prized horns.

The court will still have to accept the plea agreement, but under it, Schubarth agreed to pay a fine to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, to cooperate fully with the government’s investigation, and to quarantine any foreign or hybrid animals he still owns so the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can inspect and possibly neuter them.

In exchange, the government will recommend a sentence at the lower end of the sentencing guidelines.

According to the court records, Schubarth owns a 215-acre ranch on the Fairfield Bench in Vaughn that was the central point for the breeding and transactions, which involved five other people in Montana, Texas and Minnesota who are identified only as “Person A” through “Person E” in the criminal information.

In January 2013, Schubarth got ahold of a part of a male Marco Polo argali sheep that was killed in Kyrgyzstan and illegally imported into the U.S. and came to an agreement with an unnamed third party that would store the parts. Two years later, he signed a contract to have the sheep cloned and put a deposit down of $4,200, according to court records.

In November 2016, Schubarth received 165 cloned embryos of the sheep, and six months later, a male sheep was born from one of those embryos that Schubarth called “Montana Mountain King.”

The next year, Schubarth started harvesting semen from Montana Mountain King to artificially inseminate other ewes to create hybrid sheep, and also started shipping dozens of straws of the semen to a person in Texas.

That same year, “Person C” brought 26 illegal sheep to Schubarth’s ranch to be inseminated, paying Schubarth at least $600 before taking 15 of the sheep back to Minnesota.

Over the next couple of years, the person in Minnesota brought more sheep to be inseminated, while Schubarth added more clients in Texas to ship the straws to and started working with them on larger deals.

In 2020, he agreed to sell one of Montana Mountain King’s sons and 11 sheep that had one-quarter of his genetics for $23,000 to two people in Texas, and one of them got a false export license to send 43 illegal sheep to Schubarth and bring back 12 more of the Marco Polo hybrids, according to the criminal information.

The documents say other falsified export records were obtained in Montana for further sales of the hybrid offspring in Texas and Minnesota over the next two years. The animals were listed falsely as New Mexico Dall sheep, New Mexico “domestic” sheep, and “Bighorn x” sheep.

And the criminal information says the people involved knew what they were doing was illegal. In online communications, Schubarth was found to have discussed with one of the Texas buyers a name for the hybrid sheep they were creating. One of the Texans said that they knew they could not call it a “Black Argali.”

Online records show Schubarth has been involved in game farming in Montana since at least the 1990s, when he testified on bills about the operations and spoke to a University of Montana researcher.

He also posted about selling “hybrid Rocky Mountain ewes” on several online forums, including lambs for more than $2,000. The plea agreement says the fair market value for everything Schubarth exchanged with the other buyers and sellers was worth between $250,000 and $550,000.

Further court dates have not been set in the case as of Wednesday. Should the court accept the plea agreement, the government stipulated that it will recommend a lower sentence for Schubarth so long as he fully cooperates with the agreement.

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Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.