October 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

A Medford elk hunter died Wednesday afternoon after another hunters bullet struck him in the thigh.

Oregon State Police said Keith W. Ashley, 56, was hunting with a party of family and friends in a remote area of the Ukiah Unit near French Springs on the Union County border Wednesday afternoon.

Investigators and witnesses said Ashley was separated from his hunting party at about 3:30 p.m. when a rifle shot deflected off a branch and struck him in the thigh. Officers are considering the incident to be an accident.

Ashley had time to yell for help, said OSP Sgt. Scott Moore, and was found quickly by other hunters.

But the other hunters had to go to an area where their cell phones would get through, Moore said. An area quick-response team and the Grande Ronde Hospital ambulance arrived at the scene by 5 p.m. By then, Ashley had died of massive blood loss, Moore said.

State Police are investigating the shooting and believe they will be able to identify the person who fired the shot.

Because Ashley was hit by a rifle shot, State Police brought in a major crime unit to search the area late Wednesday and early Thursday morning.

There were a lot of hunters in the area, Moore said, not just those in Ashleys party, getting into the unit for the first day of the season.

Ashleys brother and son were both hunting with him and returned to Medford to be with other family members, Moore said.

The shooting should be a reminder to all hunters to remember basic hunter safety rules, including knowing what is behind their shot and what will be stopping any shot if the target is missed, Moore said.