November 01, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Attention to one of the fundamentals of firearm safety might have prevented a hunting tragedy in Union County last week.

Keith W. Ashley, 56, of Medford, died on Oct. 24 while elk hunting in the Ukiah Unit after a bullet ricocheted off a branch and hit him in the thigh.

Ashley, 56, was hunting with a party of friends near French Springs on the Union County border. Investigators said that a rifle shot deflected off a branch and struck him in the thigh. Ashley died after losing a massive amount of blood. Officers have determined that the incident was an accident.

The accident apparently occurred because someone fired a rifle without making sure that the path between them and their target and the area behind the target was clear.

It is so critical to know where your target is and what is in front of and behind it, said Craig Ely, supervisor of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes Northeast Region.

Ely said that anything, even a small degree of brush, can cause a bullet to ricochet.

Shooting through brush is also dangerous because one cannot see a target clearly. Ely noted that when a person sees some elk horns sticking up out of brush he or she should not assume that it is a a live elk. He said it could be that someone is on the ground gutting the elk.

Hunters also should refrain from firing at animals that are standing on the top of a hill because only open air is usually behind them. Thus if a hunter misses, his bullet may continue moving into an area that the hunter cannot see.

If you fire at a silhouetted deer or elk on the top of a hill the bullet may pass over it, Ely said.

Each year it is apparent that some hunters in this area ignore the rule of knowing what is behind their target before firing. This is why hunters periodically accidentally kill two elk or deer with one shot. A hunter will shoot an elk or deer and then discover another dead animal behind it by passing through the targeted animal.


Forty years ago Oregons forests were like a war zone during hunting seasons.

In the early 1960s it was not uncommon to have 90 hunting accidents a year involving firearms. Up to 15 of these accidents were fatal each year.

Today, hunter accident numbers are down dramatically. Over the past five years, 1996-2000, there have been an average of nine hunting accidents involving firearms or bows a year. The average number of fatal hunting accidents was 1.2 a year.

The drop in these numbers is not an anomaly. The number of hunting accidents in Oregon has been steadily decreasing since 1963.


The reason is not a mystery, according to Tony Burtt, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlifes hunting education coordinator.

He explained that the state started a mandatory hunter education safety program in 1963. All hunters under age 18 are required to complete the program.

Today the vast majority of Oregons hunters have had firearm safety training. As a result, hunting is a remarkably safe activity.

It is extremely safe, Burtt said. There were just 1.9 accidents per 100,000 people last year.

Because the incident rate is so low Burtt does not believe that there will be a substantial decline in the number of accidents in the future.

Between 300,000 and 350,000 people hunt in Oregon each year. Forty years ago about 250,000 people annually hunted in the state yet many more people were killed in accidents.

Burtt noted that most hunting accidents involve people who are 26 to 43 years old.

Most people involved in hunting accidents are hurt by people in their party.

You are much more likely to be shot by someone in your party than a stranger because hunters are usually closest to those in their party, Burtt said. Accidents occur when hunters lose track of where their partners are.

Burtt said that the best way to avoid an accident involving someone in your party is to wear glaze orange.