September 30, 2004 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Staff Writer

An orange wave will sweep over the forests of Union and Wallowa counties this weekend.

About 6,500 hunters, many dressed in protective orange, will converge on area forests for the opening weekend of the buck deer rifle season. The controlled season opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 13.

Hunters will be greeted by forests unseasonably lush with vegetation.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Vic Coggins of Enterprise noted that in the Hells Canyon area there has been six inches of grass growth in August and September because of heavy summer rains.

"This is about as lush a growth of vegetation (throughout Wallowa County) as I've ever seen everywhere in the fall,'' said Coggins, who has worked for the ODFW in Wallowa County for 38 years.

This means that deer will be more spread out than in drought years when they are more likely to congregate around bodies of water.

About 4,400 hunters are expected in Wallowa County.

Deer hunting will be best near farmland and in managed forest areas, Coggins said. The density of deer falls off significantly in backcountry wilderness areas because more deer fall prey to predators such as bears and cougars.

Coggins encourages deer hunters to buy cougar tags so they can shoot cougars if they encounter them incidentally. Coggins said the best method for controlling cougars is having hunters take them during deer and elk seasons.

In Union County about 1,900 hunters are expected to hit the woods. About 1,200 of these will be in the Starkey Unit, which stretches south from Kamela to Anthony Lakes and includes Ladd Canyon.

The outlook in the Starkey Unit, where the buck ratio is a low 6 per 100 does, is below average. Hunters will find a limited number of older bucks and an average number of yearling bucks, said ODFW biologist Jim Cadwell.

The outlook is stronger in the Catherine Creek Unit, where there are 14 bucks per 100 does, which means prospects will be average.

Union County deer hunting prospects will be best in the East Mount Emily Unit, where there are 22 bucks per 100 does.

A number of road closures are now in effect and will remain in effect for most of the fall. New closures are in effect in Wallowa County this year are for:

• Lord Flat Road and P.O. Saddle Road, both in the Snake River Unit.

• Wildhorse Ridge Road and T.P. Ridge Road, both in the Chesnimnus Unit.

Hunters should check their Oregon Big Game Regulations 2004 synopsis for information on other closures.

Hunters are also reminded that special restrictions apply to transporting a locally harvested deer out of state.