WILLAMINA, Ore.–

Conservationists plan to shelter Oregon’s sensitive species where giraffes and rhinoceros once roamed.

The Nature Conservancy will soon open Noble Oaks Preserve on land near Salem that previously served as a sanctuary for rare and endangered exotic animals.

Although not particularly large for the conservancy, Dan Bell, the group’s Willamette Basin Conservation Director, said its location in the increasingly developed Willamette Valley makes it an important one.

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

He calls it a “habitat anchor” for the area’s wildlife, granting them an uninterrupted corridor between two conservation lands.

The idea for the preserve started with Dick Noble, a now 76-year-old former lawyer. A farmer growing up, he enjoyed raising animals – even after he became a vegetarian in the 1980s. Dick and his wife, Nancy, began raising rarer species.

“Initially, it was miniature donkeys, special sheep and llamas,” Dick said. “Then we decided we wanted to do something that was useful from a conservation standpoint.”

The couple joined the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and turned their property into a breeding farm for the agency’s species survival program.

Next came endangered antelope, rhinoceros, giraffes, red pandas, and other species not typically found in Oregon.

“We started on a small scare, not thinking it would expand to the extent it did,” Nancy said.

The operation outgrew the Noble’s 50-acre property in Scholls, so they bought a cattle spread near Willamina. To protect the animals, the location was kept secret. At one point the Nobles had 250 animals.

“The idea was to maintain captive groups of animals that are threatened or endangered so at some point they might be reintroduced into their native habitat,” Dick said.

Twenty-five years later, the Nobles are ready to downsize. After finding new homes for their animals, they now have a dozen remaining. Most of them are functionally extinct in the wild.

Wanting to make sure their land remained protected after they die, the Nobles contacted The Nature Conservancy.

Noble Oaks is among the last spots where the white oak savanna that once dominated the Willamette Valley continues to thrive. Works to restore the land have begun, but it will be years before the public gains access to the preserve.

Under the land exchange, animals remaining at Noble Oaks will be allowed to stay there until the end of their lives. The Nobles can remain in their home for the rest of Dick’s life, as well. Only after that time will the land be fully open to visitors.

The Nature Conservancy workers plan to re-seed pastures with native plants and thin the property’s roughly 200 acres of oak groves, giving the trees more room to grow. They will remove invasive species and create a long-term plan to care for the property.

Eventually, it will be open to the public with guided hikes and volunteer outings.

Katrina Aman is an aspiring journalist who desires to be a person of positive influence. Particularly passionate about poverty alleviation and civil rights, she hopes her writing takes her where she can improve lives.