RENO, Nev. — A big-game hunter from Montana is suing a Canadian outfitter and a world-renowned hunting guide in Tajikistan he accuses of turning his once-in-a-lifetime adventure of bagging a rare, wild argali sheep known as the "Marco Polo" into a nightmare.
Rick Vukasin said in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno last week that he spent more than $50,000 pursuing the animal in the Pamir mountains of northeast Tajikistan near China's border in December 2012.
The 65-year-old electrician said he felt like he was literally on top of the world after he tracked, shot and killed a 400-pound, big-horned ram with the coveted, spiraling horns at an elevation of 14,000 feet. But he was mortified two months later when he opened up the box shipped to his home in Great Falls to find the horns were not the 58-inch-long ones from his trophy animal.
"I could tell right away," Vukasin told The Associated Press. "I was sick."
The native Montanan who grew up hunting deer on the eastern front of the Northern Rockies had stalked moose in Saskatchewan and red stag elk in New Zealand.
"But the thing I really wanted to do was a Marco Polo sheep hunt," he said. He poured over books, guides and websites before settling on the excursion halfway around the world.
"The biggest of the species is in Tajikistan. So I figured if I was only going to be able to do this once, I'm going top shelf," he said.
Vukasin and his guide, Yuri Matison, saw animals the first day but had difficulty tracking them partly because it's hard to breathe at that altitude, he said. But the next day he said he "felt lucky" to land a prize with a rack in "pretty good shape ... not all busted up from fighting."
The horns he ended up with are missing a few noticeable chips and weathered to the point he suspects they are at least two years old.
Vukasin said Matison and the booking outfitter — Ameri-Cana Expeditions Inc. of Edmonton, Alberta — first insisted the horns were the originals, then offered to send a replacement.
He's demanding reimbursement or his original horns, but he said a possible exchange is complicated by international treaties governing hunting of argali, a threatened species in Tajikistan. Only 60 permits are issued there annually for the sheep named after the 13th century explorer.
The Safari Club International considers the argali's horns the "most spectacular" of all the world's sheep, according to its record book. Vukasin shot his in the same region where Matison had served as guide about a month before for Soudy Golbachi of Augusta, Ga., when he set a club record for landing one with horns more than 71 inches long.
Vukasin said Ameri-Cana co-owner Dan Frederick dismissed his concerns, telling him "it's just hunting."
"Granted," Vukasin said, "you can have bad weather or you might not see any animals or you might miss the shot. That's hunting.
"But to shoot the animal and take pictures of it and then not to get it, somebody has to be responsible."
Frederick didn't immediately return calls or email seeking comment. The Associated Press was unable to locate Matison.
Vukasin said he contacted an FBI agent in Great Falls, who indicated he probably was a fraud victim but there was little authorities could do unless they found a number of other hunters who'd also been duped.
FBI spokesman William Facer in Salt Lake City said on Friday the agency could not comment.
Linda Linton, a Reno lawyer, said she filed Vukasin's lawsuit there because Matison and Ameri-Cana advertise and do business there regularly at conventions of the Safari Club International and the Wild Sheep Foundation, the latter of which named Matison to its Mountain Hunter Hall of Fame in 2009.
Vukasin is seeking $75,000 in damages for lost money, "worry, anxiety, loss of sleep, physical and mental distress."
"I've been fighting them more than a year. I finally got fed up and decided to do something about it," he said, adding he's convinced others have been victimized. "I have this stuff sitting in my living room and every time I look at the horns, I just get that much more mad."