SHELL BLUFF, Ga. — John Jensen is part of a devoted fan club working toward the recovery of Georgia’s official reptile.

Although unchanged in nature for millions of years, the threatened gopher tortoise – a shy, burrowing vegetarian – is vanishing across the Southeast because of humans’ encroachment.

“A big cause has been the loss of grassy woodlands they need to survive,” said Jensen, a senior biologist at Georgia’s Wildlife Resources Division.

Efforts are under way to restore the secretive species to its original range within the state-owned Yuchi Wildlife Management Area in Burke County.

“Part of what we’re doing is jump-starting a radio-telemetry study,” said Javan Bauder, a research ecologist with the Orianne Society, a conservation group.

On Monday, biologists gathered on a sandy hilltop where 16 tortoises live within in a 21/2-acre enclosure secured with a silt fence.

“They were put here last fall,” Bauder said. “We are planning to trap and recapture them, and 10 will get radio transmitters to track their movement.”

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