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April Fool's Feature: Send in the clones

A secret project for America's elite makes Idaho a hunter's paradise

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Every July, with almost mechanical regularity, dozens of private jets descend upon the Friedman Memorial Airport 15 miles south of Sun Valley. The planes come in all sizes and colors, clustering like migratory butterflies in and around the deluxe hangars of the small-town landing strip. But what these butterflies are carrying is far more valuable than nectar. They carry America's leaders of industry and entertainment, instantly recognizable names like Turner, Eisner, Gates, Geffen, Murdoch, Buffett, Winfrey and Schwarzenegger, to name but a few. For almost 25 years, they've arrived in good weather and bad, bull markets and bear, to attend an annual tycoon conference hosted by famed investment banker and Sun Valley resident Herbert Allen.

Few reporters have been allowed to enter this exclusive cabal, but those who do come back with almost unbelievable stories that mix big business and high leisure. Billionaire CEOs crafting mergers while mountain biking, for instance, or movie moguls taking a break from green-lighting a picture to go whitewater rafting. Simply put, this is "star power" at its most exclusive and enigmatic.

But the real star of this year's summit is far from Sun Valley, or even sunlight. He lives in a tiny 10-foot by 10-foot fenced pen, deep inside a windowless brick compound in remote Central Idaho. Rather than caviar or Cristal, he dines on a precisely calculated blend of native Idaho grasses and potent nutritional powders. And as for his name, it's anything but instantly recognizable. Among the scientists who tend to him, the first-ever successfully cloned Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, he is known fondly as "Horny."

Horny doesn't look much like other members of his highly endangered species. He's bigger, first of all, clocking in at a hefty 436 lbs-almost 23 percent larger than the average male bighorn. His name, partially a joke by a community of lonely lab technicians, also refers to his super-sized full-curl horns, just one of several controversial "adaptations" to help Horny's descendants survive in the unforgiving wilderness. Other changes, carefully crafted using several decades' worth of gene-isolation research, include increased resistance to disease and to intense heat and cold. To top it all off, Horny matures almost twice as fast as wild bighorns, and requires a fraction of the food. He is, in almost every way, the first ever super-strain of bighorn sheep.

But these "improvements" come at a price. Namely, the lives of Horny's "children," a small group of other identical Rocky Mountain bighorns that scientists have cloned from the prototypical super-sheep's nuclear DNA. According to one of the scientists, these prodigious ruminants are scheduled to be the centerpieces of a secret three-day hunting trip in July. Their stalkers: the Sun Valley billionaires who, the scientist claims, have been secretly funding Horny's creation all along.

The Birth of Horny

"Look at that spectacular skull plate, those muscular legs," explains "Stephanos," one of the geneticists responsible for creating and caring for Horny, as he flips through a stack of confidential photos in a McCall coffee shop. "In the wild, he would stand out as a man among boys."

In the world of genetics, the same could be said of Stephanos-except that almost no one has heard of him. A former luminary in the genetics departments of both Cambridge University and MIT, he once appeared to be on track to becoming one of the major contributors to the science of cloning. Then, without warning, he went underground.

Just two weeks before his thesis, a 320-page epic titled Embryonic Cloning: Savior of the Endangered, Resuscitator of the Extinct, was to be published in 1992, Stephanos pulled himself out of all of his classes to take a job with a virtually unknown governmental agency by the name of Heterogenetic Office of American Xenogenesis. From there, he says, he and a small community of other renegade geneticists have been intricately involved with almost every major cloning project of the last decade, at the behest of a cluster of deep-pocketed and big-named employers.

According to confidential documents shared only with BW, Stephanos was surreptitiously listed as an "ear-tag and hoof-trimming associate" at Scotland's Roslin Institute in 1996, when the famed sheep "Dolly" came into being. In 2001, when scientists at the University of Telamo in Italy successfully cloned an endangered wild Mouflon sheep, Stephanos was on the payroll under the title of "straw and animal waste manager." Most recently, his work can be seen at the University of Idaho, where in 2003, geneticists successfully achieved the first-ever cloning of a mule, by the name of Gem. According to the demands of donors to the project, Stephanos' name never appeared in the press, but he insists he was there-this time choosing the misnomer "head stable boy."

"When it comes down to it, those projects were all pretty much PR fronts," Stephanos tells BW, looking nervously from his coffee to the street outside. "From the start, cloning-or nuclear transplantation, or whatever you want to call it-has been driven by wealthy sportsmen with unlimited resources and a passion for 'The Hunt.' All the farm animals, the pigs and dogs and rats, they were all just training for what we're working on now: game animals, the rare ones, the ones who make great trophies, the ones who are regulated and protected by government agencies. Stuff like bighorns, mountain goats, grizzly bears. 'Catch-of-a-lifetime' game."

According to never-before-published research obtained by BW, the American Popular Ruminant Isogenetic Lotic and Feral Oncogenetic Official Laboratory Study, as Stephanos labels it, has produced 12 fully grown clones of Horny since the prototype's birth just over two years ago. While Stephanos would not disclose the exact location of the laboratory where the super-sheep are being crafted, he said it was "somewhere between Moscow and Frank Church," meaning the 12,000-square mile Frank Church Wilderness area along Idaho's northeastern border. That way, he says, the geneticists can utilize the technology and laboratories at the University of Idaho, while also having quick access to the bighorns' natural habitat.

"We-meaning myself and probably ... 30 other top-tier geneticists-worked in shifts for months straight before Horny was birthed," Stephanos recalls. "Some of it was done in our rural lab, some of it right on the U of I campus. How many times we failed before getting him just right ... I can't even begin to count. We accidentally created a sheep with one horn, a unicorn, but it was stillborn. Now, it's almost too easy. Each embryo, after we implant it with Horny's nuclear DNA, is birthed by one of the dozens of domestic sheep we keep outside the facility. It's remarkably simple, really."

After their birth, the rams-as of yet, only male sheep have been allowed to mature-are bottle-fed a powerful formula for four months before being flown by helicopter to a secret site deep within the wilderness area. Here, the documents say, the bighorns, all nearly identical in size to Horny, are held in invisible electronic pens in a high mountain valley and are fed twice daily by a skeleton crew of what Stephanos says are basically "black-ops veterinarians."

"Some of us think that those guys are renegade Fish and Game officers, hired away from publicly known government offices," Stephanos says. "I think it's the opposite: They're full-blown U.S. Military. Marines, maybe. I've seen them up there, living in pup-tents, eating basically what the sheep eat. We have specific orders to keep the rams as wild as possible for the big hunt, so these guys dress in full-camo every time they feed them, like it's some kind of top-secret mission. The sheep never see where the food is coming from. And the weapons these guys carry ..." He looks deeply into his coffee cup, pausing for effect. "If you knew the full extent of who was involved in this, you'd know the sky's the limit."

Stephanos claims to have visited the Frank Church site only once, late in September of 2004. "It's way out there," he says. "And since I'm in the lab almost all the time, I'm sure there's a lot going on up there that I have no clue about." As for the site, however, he describes it as, "About the strangest sight imaginable. Just picture a bunch of 400- to 500-pound sheep, contained against their will by invisible fences, being fed at night by commandoes." The shock of the spectacle, he claims, is part of why he decided to go public.

"Of course, I'm not innocent in all of this," Stephanos says. "I knew what Horny and the boys were being created for when I got involved. But in a way, inside every one of these cloned super-sheep is a little cloned version of me. I just can't sit back and watch these beautiful creatures get turned into some billionaire's fireplace ornament, without coming forward."

The Shot of a Lifetime

Stephanos refuses to reveal the names of his employers to BW, citing concerns over his safety, as well as the possibility that he would not be believed. He insists, however that they are "almost all people who would be recognizable by either their first or last names. Maybe even their initials." He adds that he doesn't expect his speaking out about the hunt to keep it from happening, given the financial and political resources of its organizers.

"Let's just put it this way: First, our MSN service is always free and we get crystal-clear FOX reception no matter where we go. And second, our Idaho lab is an exact replica of 'The Tomb,'" he says, referring to the home of Yale University's famed secret society Skull and Bones, of which both President George W. Bush and former opponent John Kerry are members. "If my bosses want this thing to happen, it'll happen no matter what," Stephanos says. "If they want it to stay secret, it'll stay secret."

But despite his dire promises, some evidence of the proposed clone hunt has apparently begun circulating among Idaho's outdoor enthusiasts.

Last August, for instance, a mysterious post appeared on the popular Idaho rock climbing message board www.IDpeakbagger.com. Posted under the screen name "ChalkBag420," the message reads, "Was on summit of Deception Peak in Frank Church last week, saw damndest thing. Buncha HUGE horned sheep standing perfectly still, staring at us from nearby vale. My buddy saw it 2. Any1 else C-n it? Way cray-z, gonna call fish n game, TTFN!" BW attempted to contact the poster via e-mail, but received a message stating that the address had been shut down due to disuse.

BW was able, however, to glean more information from Jake Barnes, owner of Papa Tours Inc., a Sun Valley-based hunting outfitter who offers yearly "Ernest Hemingway Hunting Trips" in Idaho's wilderness.

"I hear things," Barnes said over the phone when asked if he was familiar with the name "Horny the Goat." "Good things. Things that would make 'Papa' [Hemingway] very happy. He used to travel all the way to Africa just to shoot animals that are illegal to shoot today. And then I hear about this guy who just paid $180,000 for a single bighorn tag? Sign of a withered, impotent society, I say."

Barnes added that a "Northern Savannah," as he called it, has been a longtime dream for him and other Hemingway enthusiasts. "Some of my clients, they are powerful men. Men who can do great things for Idaho's environment," he said. "If all they want in return is a thrill, a few pelts, maybe a full-curl rack over the fireplace, isn't it worth it? Papa would think so and I'm pretty sure your social betters think so, too." Then Barnes hung up.

Some wilderness fans claim to have seen a darker side of the clone colony, however. According to one regular visitor to the Frank Church area, the dangers it poses can be downright lethal.

"Yeah, one time last year, one of our guided river trips got held up in the Frank-literally," claims Odin Treck, a guide at the Stanley-based river outfitter, Salmon River Revolutionaries. "There's this sweet sand bank about half way up the Middle Fork [of the Salmon River] where my guides like to stop-you know, drink some beers, spray each other with water guns, the usual stuff. But last time, just as we were pulling up to it, this voice comes out of the bushes. 'Please stay away from the shore. This area has been quarantined by the Department of Homeland Security. Continue on your present course or you will be fired upon.' That's pretty hosed up, if you ask me."

Treck says he has refrained from reporting the event to any government authority because he fears it may have only been a prank pulled by one of his fellow guides. "In the business I'm in, weird stuff happens all the time," he says. "Out in the bush, we know how to party." But Treck admits there is one phenomenon from his trip he can't explain.

"Like ... a couple hundred yards further down the river," he recalls, "we all heard this way-gnarley animal sound wailin' over the canyon. Deep, mournful ... kinda prehistoric. Never heard nothing like it. Ever." Three of his fellow guides, Treck says, quit after that trip.

Rogue Dick

The last time BW met with Stephanos before he disappeared, we sat in a small café on the outskirts of Weiser. We asked him about stories coming out of Eastern Russia and Japan regarding scientists cloning wooly mammoths at the Kinki University's Gifu Science and Technology Center. We mentioned how the Vladivostok News reported that Russian scientists believed they could resurrect animals that had become extinct.

Stephanos was apparently not surprised by the question. "We've already done it," he replied. "Actually, they are reverse-engineering our completed project."

When asked about the mysterious noises Treck reported hearing on the Middle Fork, he was more hesitant.

"I didn't really want to talk about this but since you've brought it up ... last year, our prototype mammoth-the centerpiece of the hunt-went rogue. He is currently loose in the Frank Church. We created him in the mid '90s using DNA from frozen wooly mammoth meat found in Siberia, transplanted into Asian elephant eggs. He's called Dick, named after the chairman of Haliburton when he was born," Stephanos said with a wink.

"We've managed Dick's growth and monitored his development, but we apparently crossed some genes that governed passivity and he killed two researchers during his escape. We can't kill Dick-his namesake has already called 'dibs' on the tusks and hide. So far he has eluded capture but we've been able to keep him away from populated areas and grazing cattle. We've been keeping an eye on Dick with a big radio collar to see where he goes. Our hope now is to focus our energy on the two-dozen females we've created and hope to breed out the aggression over the next 30 years. That mammoth ... is an angry sonofabitch. After the incident last year along the Middle Fork of the Salmon, luckily, we were able to push Dick deeper into the bush."

Looking around with a touch of paranoia in his eyes, Stephanos added, "If you really want to know what we're working on up there in the Frank, just look at any museum of natural history. You'll see giant sloths, prehistoric foxes that could eat gray wolves for lunch, wooly rhinoceros, giant deer and, if the DNA extraction works, we're going to bring back the Hagerman Horse. In effect, we're creating a prehistoric Ice Age version of Jurassic Park. But to do so, we're going to have to close off the area to the public.

"Rather than making it a preserve," he added quietly, "the new plans call for us to center the whole project around big game hunts for our benefactors. That's why I'm telling you this."

Looking around Idaho, it's obvious that the process has already begun. The Idaho Guides Society is preparing this week to notify their members that access to the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness will be severely limited to only about a half dozen permits this year; by 2006, none will be available at all. All future access into the area, they have been informed, will need to be made through the Department of Homeland Security.

"It is disappointing," said Herbert Walker, president of the Idaho Guides Society, "but we've been told it's a matter of national security. We don't question that."

It appears unlikely that the "security" extends beyond securing the hunting experience of a lifetime for the financial and political elite of the world's richest nations. Already, two high-security firms have relocated their offices to Idaho-one in Eagle, the other in Hailey. When contacted by BW, they replied their company mission is to "provide security." They said that for "security reasons" they could not elaborate. They added jokingly that if they told us, they'd have to kill us.

The Rafting Society of Idaho says they haven't heard of any national security issues, but were told by the Idaho Water Distribution Association that no more permits were being issued for trips through the area because of low water conditions predicted for the indefinite future.

And in a minor, but telling, addendum to the dire government warnings and leaked information, a familiar-sounding full-page advertisement appeared on the back cover of the latest issue of Firepower Aficionado Magazine, set to hit newsstands on April 1. The advertisement announces the release of a new .84 caliber "Mammoth Stopper," available only to "discriminating gun collectors." For comparison, the U.S. military uses a .50 caliber gun as its primary weapon against parked or landing aircraft, armored personnel carriers, rail tank cars, bulk fuel storage, and concrete bunkers, with an effective range of over 2,000 yards.

Any Idahoans worried about the environmental, financial, ethical, ontological or satirical fallout from the proposed hunt or its accompanying programs are encouraged to contact the Heterogenetic Office of American Xenogenesis, which will soon be built on the parquet level of the downtown Boise development BoDo. In fact, according to a final tip sent to BW just before press time, the development's name was created by the Office and stands for "Blasted Ovines as Den Ornaments."

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