Where rhinos once roamed, a habitat for sensitive Willamette Valley species emerges in Oregon wine country

An aerial view of the property shows acres upon acres of white oak stands. (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

An aerial view of the property shows acres upon acres of white oak stands. (Courtesy of The Nature Conservancy)

By Kelly House of The Oregonian/Oregonlive

January 29, 2015

In rural Polk County, conservationists plan to shelter Oregon’s streaked horned lark and northern red-legged frog on land where rhinoceros and giraffes once roamed.

The Nature Conservancy recently completed purchase of a 470-acre plot near Willamina west of Salem that for nearly two decades served as a sanctuary for rare and endangered exotic animals.

The sanctuary is all but closed, but African antelope still roam the pastures alongside a mother elk and other native animals that have begun to repopulate the land.

So-called Noble Oaks Preserve isn’t a particularly large grab for the conservancy, but Dan Bell, the group’s Willamette Basin Conservation Director, says its location near two other tracts of protected land in the increasingly developed Willamette Valley makes it an important one.

“In the valley, something of that size is very significant,” Bell said.

He calls it a “habitat anchor” for the area’s wildlife, granting them an uninterrupted corridor between two adjacent conservation lands, and in close proximity to the Yamhill Oaks Preserve and Basket Slough National Wildlife Refuge.

The land also has a curious history as a sanctuary for exotic and endangered animals.

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