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U.S. hunters banned after guiding trip here

Two Nebraska hunters received heavy fines and were temporarily banned from hunting in Manitoba after undercover agents caught them illegally acting as guides on a bird-shooting trip.

Jeffrey Bittinger, 39, and Cory Lynch, 42, became unexpected prey of an international investigation into migratory-bird hunting dubbed Operation Bluegrass Branta, court heard Tuesday.

They pleaded guilty to several infractions, including breaches of the Migratory Birds Convention Act (MBCA) and Manitoba's Wildlife Act.

In October 2010, Bittinger and Lynch stayed at Goosemasters Legendary Hunts, a bird-hunting enterprise run by Craig Littlepage.

Two undercover officers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service joined their sojourn in Canada.

They'd been tapped by Environment Canada and Manitoba Conservation to investigate Littlepage on suspicion he was running afoul of the law.

The agents witnessed Bittinger and Lynch on a Goosemasters hunt, actively taking charge of setting up blinds, decoys and telling other hunters where to shoot, Crown attorney Omar Siddique said.

Bittinger and Lynch took $200 as compensation for their work, said Siddique.

"They were presented as guides, they acted as guides, they received compensation for guiding. They were specifically represented by Mr. Littlepage as guides at the lodge," he added.

Neither was licensed to guide hunters and their conduct breached the Wildlife Act. Both men had guns that fired four shells instead of the maximum three under the MBCA.

Bittinger's gun had been modified to allow it, Judge Tim Preston was told.

The reason for the cap on rounds is to prevent hunters from shooting willy-nilly into the sky.

"It forces the hunters to aim... to focus and it doesn't allow them to have that broad Nintendo approach to hunting birds, which results in unnecessary suffering," said Siddique -- referencing the popular 1980s Nintendo game Duck Hunt.

Lawyer Aaron Seib took issue with the prosecutor portraying Bittinger and Lynch as having an arrangement with Littlepage.

They were paid Goosemasters guests and enthusiastic, experienced hunters more than willing to share what they know with others, Seib suggested.

"From their perspective, they weren't acting as guides. There was no agreement with Mr. Littlepage," he said.

"Someone offered them money after assisting with the hunt and unfortunately, they accepted the money," Seib said.

Neither came to Manitoba to contravene any laws or to make money, the lawyer added.

But the judge fined Lynch $4,000 and barred him from hunting in Manitoba -- or bird-hunting in Canada -- for one year.

Bittinger faced a higher overall penalty of $7,000, partially due to the modification of his gun.

Preston also prohibited him from hunting birds in Canada for two years and hunting any game in Manitoba for one year.

Littlepage, 38, recently pleaded guilty to infractions under the MBCA, the Wildlife Act and the Resource Tourism Operators Act.

In doing so, he scuttled what was to be a three-week trial in provincial court.

Littlepage will be sentenced later this summer.

When entering his pleas, Littlepage acknowledged he faced the prospect of a five-year ban from guiding and a year-long hunting prohibition.

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