September 25, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

The crackle of area forests is taking some of the pop out of the outlook for the opening of the deer buck rifle season this weekend.

The controlled season opens Saturday. Hunters will encounter dry forests in Northeast Oregon. Stalking deer will be difficult because it will be hard for hunters to move quietly through the forest, said Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Jim Cadwell.

Cadwell rates the outlook as fair in Union County because of the dry forests.

Hunters will find deer population levels in the county that are comparable to last year. In the Starkey Unit, the overall population is down slightly from a year ago. There was poor fawn survival rate over the winter because of relatively harsh weather. In the Starkey Unit there are 28 fawns per 100 adults, down from 39 fawns per 100 adults a year ago.

On the plus side the, the number of bucks in the unit is about the same as a year ago.

In the Catherine Creek Unit, the overall number of deer is comparable to last year. The number of bucks and yearlings is about the same as a year ago.

Hunters in Wallowa County will encounter healthy deer populations. There is a high buck ratio and a strong number of yearling bucks in many units.

All areas had moderate to good fawn survival except the Wenaha Unit and the west side of the Sled Springs Unit, which had poor fawn survival.

The buck deer rifle season runs through Oct. 9. Friday is the deadline for purchasing deer, bear and cougar tags in Oregon.

Yellow jacket alert

Hunters should expect to find an abundance of yellow jackets this weekend, Cadwell said. To keep the annoying insects out of their camps, hunters should avoid leaving food out and hanging their carcasses up unless they are in deer bags. Hunters also should bring yellow jacket spray and traps.

Throughout the deer season, ODFW biologists in the field will sample deer statewide for chronic wasting disease. The disease is found in deer and elk in many western states but has yet to turn up in Oregon.

Biologists will collect samples of tissue between the upper spinal cord and the lower brain stem. The process will take less than 15 minutes, Cadwell said.

Hunters with deer will be asked on a random basis for permission to take samples. Hunters with deer that are not sampled are encouraged to take them to an ODFW office.

Samples must be taken within 24 hours after the animal dies. Samples cannot be taken from deer whose heads have been frozen.

The chronic wasting disease sampling study will also be conducted during Oregon's elk seasons.

Chronic wasting disease is an illness that destroys an animal's brain and eventually kills it. It has been diagnosed in free ranging deer and elk in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska.

It also has been found in captive elk in Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and South Dakota.

Oregon has taken a number of steps to stop the spread of the disease. On Aug. 9, the state adopted an emergency order prohibiting the importation of live deer and elk as well as parts

of butchered carcasses.

Chronic wasting disease does not appear to be a threat to people.

"At this point we do not have evidence to suggest that humans can contract chronic wasting disease from consuming deer or elk flesh,'' Cadwell said.