PORTLAND — The arrest of three teenagers in a Central Oregon poaching case underscores the difficulty biologists and wildlife officers are facing in attempts to rebuild the mule deer population.

“Poaching is a much bigger problem than we thought,” said Steven George, an Oregon Fish and Wildlife biologist based in Bend. “More animals are killed by illegal harvest than legal harvest.”

Poaching has undermined efforts to rebuild the population of mule deer at the Metolius Wildlife Management Unit, The Oregonian reported.

A viral disease a decade ago cut the population in half, and wildlife managers reduced the numbers that hunters were allowed to take legally.

In the poaching case, investigators say, the animals were shot to death in their critical winter habitat.

Parts of the Metolius unit, which stretches from the Cascades to Redmond, are free of snow and ice in winter, providing forage to sustain the deer until spring.

Mule deer breed in November and carry their fetuses until late spring. A pregnant doe usually carries twins or triplets.

Wildlife officials said the poachers left behind the trophy antlers, which was unusual. They shot from their vehicles, using the cover of night, said Sgt. David Pond, a mule deer expert with the Oregon State Police Fish and Wildlife Division.

Troopers conducted aerial and ground searches at night during a seven-month investigation. The suspects, two 18-year-olds and a 17-year-old, face misdemeanor charges related to the deaths of 16 deer and two elk.

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