California real-estate developer and big-game hunter Kenneth E. Behring shot the animal in its native Kazakhstan in 1997, weeks before the announcement that he had pledged $20 million to refurbish the Smithsonian's National Museum of National History.
But he could not get the Kara-Tau argali, one of the most endangered species in the world, into the country without the Smithsonian's help, charged Humane Society vice president Wayne Pacelle.
"The Natural History Museum is giving this guy a credible defense for an activity that is repugnant and counter to any sensible principle of conservation," Pacelle said today.
The sheep cannot be brought into the country without a special waiver from the Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Endangered Species Act. The Smithsonian requested the waiver on scientific grounds, something Behring would not have been able to claim on his own, Pacelle said.
Natural History museum spokesman Randall Kremer said the museum is not bowing to the wishes of a donor and has solid scientific reasons to want the animal.
"The idea that Ken Behring either seeks or needs an association with the Smithsonian to somehow legitimize his hunting is preposterous," Kremer said.
The Kara-Tau, along with other animals shot by Behring, would be added to the museum's collection of approximately 120 million specimens. A small portion of that collection is displayed in an exhibit hall, which will be renamed the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals this year.
"It's even more prestigious for him to have this trophy exhibited in the Smithsonian's hall, with that hall named after him, than to have it in his personal collection in his home," Pacelle said.
But Kremer said the animal would only be used for research and would not be displayed for public view. Visitors to the renamed hall will have no idea that Behring gave the Kara-Tau or any other specimen to the museum, he said.
"This is a guy who has substantial wealth, and he just needs one more measure of prestige in his life and that's to donate a sheep to the Smithsonian?" Kremer asked. "That is ludicrous."
The flap was first reported in The New York Times, which quoted a spokeswoman for Behring as saying he had proper hunting permits for the animals and "was certainly not encouraged by any museum to hunt them."
At the moment, the argument over the Kara-Tau is academic, because the carcass is in limbo in a Canadian taxidermy shop. The Fish and Wildlife Service has not granted the Smithsonian's request, in part because it requested additional documentation from Kazakhstan.
Kremer said the museum is trying to gather the requeste material.