Hybrid Sheep and the Lacey Act

The Lacey Act, as you likely know, prohibits the international movement of plants and animals that were harvested illegally. Typically, a violation involves a company that imported wood or wood products for use in production or for resale. Less commonly, by which I mean never until just now, does the violation involve the importation of parts of wild mountain sheep from Kyrgyzstan as part of a plot to clone the sheep to produce breeding males to make hybrid giant sheep for private hunting in Montana. That real live plot, recently noted in a Department of Justice press release, sounds like the hobby or side hustle for the villain in a James Bond movie. 

Thanks to Tom B. for the tip and the nudge to do this update.

The crazy facts are that the owner of an "alternative livestock ranch" in Montana violated the Lacey Act when he conspired with others to import "parts" of Marco Polo argali sheep.  These are among the largest sheep in the world and are native to the Pamir Mountains of central Asia. According to DOJ, they can weight more than 300 pounds and have horns that span five feet.

The idea was to use the imported samples to clone a male Marco Polo and then use that male to impregnate ewes of other species, creating a "giant" hybrid sheep for "captive hunting."  This was not just an idea, the ranch owner got as far as having actual cloned sheep embryos and produced a single pure-bred male Marco Polo named "Montana Mountain King." That ram's semen was actually used to artificially inseminate ewes. 

It is not clear how the Lacey Violation occurred. Possibly, the killing and/or butchering for export in Kyrgyzstan was illegal under local or international law. More likely, the problem for the rancher-turned-defendant is that the species ovis ammon, of which the Marco Polo is a subspecies (ovis ammon polii), is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on the International Traffic in Endangered Species (CITES). Appendix II lists species that are not yet recognized as threatened with extinction but need protection from unregulated trade to prevent that risk. Importing Appendix II animals or products derived from them requires an export permit from the source country. Presumably, that was not obtained. 

Here is a related law-school hypothetical for you: What if they did this Jurassic Park-style with an already extinct, and therefore not endangered, species? This is not too crazy of an idea. People seem to be actively working toward de-extinction for a mammoth and a thylacine ("Tasmanian tiger"). At least initially, it seems those creatures or hybrid (e.g., half mammoth-half elephant) would be unregulated. Or, they may fall into some more generic regulation prohibiting the keeping of "exotic" or invasive species. Whatever, when it is possible for me to have a pet dodo (raphus cuculattus), I'm in.

Also, while I am thinking of CITES, do not smuggle birds, even if they are cereal mascots.


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