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Eugene Wier looks for wildlife in a pond at the new Rogue River Preserve near Dodge Bridge Tuesday. The Southern Oregon Land Conservancy is holding a series of guided hikes in April, May and June, and the preserve will be site of a “Herptile Bioblitz” Sunday, April 29. (Jamie Lusch/Mail Tribune)

Southern Oregon Land Conservancy to lead free, guided hikes at nature hotspots

EAGLE POINT — Eugene Wier interrupts his stroll through the tranquil fields of the new Rogue River Preserve to peer into a puddle that will soon turn into a watery coliseum where amphibians will become gladiators.

Hundreds of tiny tree-frog tadpoles flit about and dash for safety as Wier’s shadow moves across the shallow water — good practice for when wading birds and the terminator-like toe-biter beetles do battle with the frogs trying to escape their predators.

In the wild, nature rarely nurtures.

“The next time here, there will be hundreds, if not thousands, of frogs that will move from this pond, but it also will become a feeding pond,” Wier says. “Toe-biter beetles love to eat these.”

Wier is planning to return to the pond April 29 with 15 amateur herp-sleuths during one of 11 public hikes organized by the Ashland-based Southern Oregon Land Conservancy during April, May and June at various parcels bearing the conservancy’s conservation fingerprints.

The conservancy is taking reservations for the hikes, which start Saturday with a front-loaded agenda that includes six hikes before the end of April.

“The goal is to get people outside and highlight some of our conservation projects,” says Kristi Merganthaler, SOLC’s stewardship director and hike leader.

This year’s hike package highlight’s SOLC’s pièce de résistance — the new preserve along the Rogue River off Highway 234.

SOLC purchased the 352-acre preserve last summer from the family of former Mail Tribune Editor Robert Ruhl for $2.4 million, raised from a campaign that included private and corporate donations as well as grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.

Along with sporting 29 “special status” species, such as rare Lewis’ woodpeckers and the very uncommon common California king snake, the ranch is home to the second-largest intact riparian forest along the upper 100 miles of the Rogue, as well as vernal pools that support rare shrimp and flowers.

“When you bring people out here, they can understand why they bought this place,” Wier says.

The conservancy intends to manage the land for its unique ecological values as well as some public visitation, but so far the public access to the property has been limited to small groups such as Audubon Society chapters and school groups while SOLC works on a management plan for the property, Mergenthaler says.

Once that management plan is complete, the conservancy expects to schedule specific days when the property will be open to the public, with docents on hand to help visitors explore the terrain and its inhabitants, Mergenthaler says.

Until then, the guided hikes represent the first opportunity for members of the general public to visit.

“The hikes really are a soft opening for the preserve,” Mergenthaler says.

Other hikes include treks up Upper Table Rock, birding and history walks in the Jacksonville Woodlands, more birds in the Cascade foothills, and a hike in the popular Cathedral Hills trail system near Grants Pass.

There are also two members-only hikes, one focusing on mushroom identification at the preserve and the other on butterflies of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Wier says he and his co-leader, Southern Oregon University biology professor Michael Parker, will lead their hike as part of a bio-blitz called the City Nature Challenge, during which people are urged to go outside and document the various animal species they find and report them using the iNaturalist app.

These “citizen-scientist” outings help create a snapshot of nature that day in local communities, which can be useful as part of long-term indexes logging the presence, or potential absence, of various critters.

Wier says he and Parker will focus their hike on finding and identifying amphibians and other members of the herpetology world in habitats beyond the preserve’s system of spring puddles and seasonal ponds.

Wier steps away from the frog-laden puddle and approaches a large downed cottonwood log, immediately spying a small Western fence lizard scurrying to safety.

“This is great basking habitat, the kind of place you’d expect to see somebody,” Wier says.

Hikers will be encouraged to bring binoculars to improve their chances of catching sight of animals such as long-toed salamanders and California king snakes, but otherwise they will be asked to keep their hands to themselves.

Turning over rocks and logs disturbs the very habitats these critters use, and returning overturned stones can crush these animals, Wier says.

“So plan on looking for wildlife instead of catching it,” Wier says.

To learn more about the hikes and to register, see www.landconserve.org or call 541-482-3069.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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