MEEKER, Colo — The owner of a private hunting ranch in northwest Colorado pleaded guilty to illegally importing several exotic sheep species for clients of his private ranch to hunt, Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) said.

Michael Gates, 34, lives in Utah, but owns DJ Rams LLC near Dinosaur Colorado, CPW said. He pleaded guilty to his crime on June 19 in a Rio Blanco County courtroom.

A months-long investigation by CPW led to the discovery of several prohibited exotic sheep species on the ranch property. Officers said Gates illegally imported and possessed several exotic sheep species for his clients to hunt, including Mouflon sheep hybrids, Texas Dall sheep and Painted Desert sheep. All of them are prohibited in Colorado.

Gates received a one-year deferred judgment sentence for possession of prohibited, non-native sheep. In addition, he must pay fines and court costs totaling over $1,400 and perform 60 hours of public service.

He was also assessed five suspension points against his hunting and fishing privileges. In the future, he must comply with all CPW and Colorado Department of Agriculture inspections and requirements or risk additional fines and the potential loss of his operation.

"Based on our investigation, Mr. Gates knew these sheep were prohibited but that did not stop him," said Wildlife Officer Nate Martinez. "He decided to risk the health of our native wildlife and local domestic sheep simply for profit."

The prohibition is needed to protect native wildlife from hybridization with non-native species, avert the potential spread of disease to native sheep populations and prevent severe damage to habitat, CPW said.

"If they had escaped, these prohibited sheep could all survive in Colorado’s harsh climate," said Martinez. "The disease issue is a major concern, as well as the potential impacts to native habitat and all of the native species that depend on it."

Martinez says the biggest threat would be to the native population of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep within nearby Dinosaur National Monument, and to domestic sheep within neighboring sheep-grazing allotments.

Officers learned of the illegal sheep last summer after wildlife officers received a tip from an informant that had seen a social media post featuring the illegal sheep Gates had brought to the ranch.

To anonymously provide information about a wildlife violation, the public can contact Operation Game Thief at 877-265-6648. Rewards are available if the information leads to an arrest or conviction.

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