Amphibians and reptiles benefited when John Jensen abandoned a geology degree and returned to school to study biology.
The switch led Jensen to a nearly 19-year career as a Georgia Department of Natural Resources biologist, and national recognition this week for his work conserving species varying from gopher tortoises to eastern indigo snakes, a realm of wildlife sometimes overlooked and often under-appreciated.
Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation named Jensen as the 2015 recipient of the Alison Haskell Award for Excellence in Herpetofaunal Conservation. Presented Tuesday at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference in Omaha, Neb., the award honors a person in North America who shows extraordinary commitment to conserving reptiles, amphibians and their habitats.
Jensen, a herpetologist and senior biologist with the DNR Wildlife Resources Division’s Nongame Conservation Section, was noted for efforts that included promoting law changes protecting native freshwater turtles, forging herp-focused conservation partnerships, and starting and coordinating a citizen-science project that mapped the distribution of amphibians and reptiles in Georgia.
Nongame Conservation Section Chief Jon Ambrose listed other examples – Jensen serving as lead editor of the book “Amphibians and Reptiles of Georgia,” his key role in developing a Southeast strategy for conserving gopher tortoises and his help converting rattlesnake roundups to beneficial wildlife festivals, including the Claxton Rattlesnake & Wildlife Festival scheduled for this weekend.
“This award is in recognition of John's important contributions to the conservation of reptiles and amphibians in Georgia,” Ambrose said.
For Jensen, of Monticello, it began with enjoying animals he “could actually catch with bare hands, especially those that also required getting in the water with.”
Yet after studying geology in college because he didn’t think he could “make a living working with critters,” Jensen realized his true calling. Herps and heart won out over rocks.
He helped plan and launch Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation in 1999, and 16 years later is being lauded by the organization for his “contributions to herpetofaunal conservation, leadership roles and ability to build effective partnerships,” a record the steering committee called “impressive.”
In a letter supporting Jensen’s nomination, Zoo Atlanta Herpetological Research Director Joe Mendelson wrote, “I can truthfully say that I have not encountered a more productive and encouraging colleague in any state or federal agency than John Jensen.”
The award is named in memory of Alison Haskell, a noted herpetologist and the first federal agencies coordinator for Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation.
The DNR Nongame Conservation Section works to Georgia’s other rare and endangered animals and native plants. However, the agency receives no state general funds for its conservation programs, depending instead on fundraisers, grants and donations.
The public can help by purchasing a nongame wildlife license plate – a bald eagle or ruby-throated hummingbird – or renewing an older eagle or “hummer” plate. Thanks to a law change, upgrading to a wildlife plate costs only $25 more than a standard tag, and most of the fee is dedicated to wildlife.
Supporters can also contribute through the Georgia Wildlife Conservation Fund checkoff on their state income tax forms. Every contribution helps. Details at www.georgiawildlife.com/conservation/support.