CRAWFORD — Dean Studnicka’s office is decorated with hides, antlers, photos of trophy elk and animals that he’s stuff and mounted.
A wildlife biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, he works in the Ponderosa Wildlife Management Area about 7 miles from Crawford, at the edge of the Nebraska National Forest. He and his co-workers keep an eye on eight wildlife management areas in the Pine Ridge.
“We do deer check stations and wildlife surveys, some with elk and bighorns,” he said. “Basically, anything you can hunt out here, we have a system of conducting surveys.”
The crew examines deer taken by hunters, including checking for several diseases, and takes complaints from ranchers about elk getting into their hay bales.
“Bunches of elk go from one landowner to the next,” Studnicka said.
He’s taken part in collaring the big animals to track their movements. The Pine Ridge area is known for trophy bulls.
“When I go here we didn’t have an elk season,” he said. “I spent a lot of time doing radio telemetry and hiking the Ridge.”
He’s also captured antelope fawns, trapped Nebraska turkeys to transplant in Montana and helped to fight periodic wildfires in the Ponderosa pine forests of the northern Panhandle.
“The thing that I enjoy the most is the bighorn sheep,” he said. “It’s been amazing.”
Studnicka comes from a family of wildlife biologists, including his father, who moved the family to Nebraska in 1967 to work at the Sacramento-Wilcox Wildlife Management Area, in the state’s Rainwater Basin area near Kearney.
The family lived in a house on the site. He attended schools in Wilcox, a town of less than 300. The family lived on the reserve and had a second house on Harlan County Reservoir.
“We went hunting and fishing a lot,” he said.
His father’s work included raising crested tinamou, a partridge-like bird imported from South America.
“They shipped them in handmade wicker baskets made by the native people,” he said. “I think my mom still has one.”
Chukars, a species of partridge, were hatched at the site, along with Canada geese.
“The entire Nebraska goose restoration project came from there,” he said. “I learned to candle eggs when I was 5. They’d lay an egg a day and we’d replace them with a ceramic egg and hatch the eggs in an incubator.”
He also helped an uncle trap and band doves and rode along when his father took hatched birds to hunting grounds.
“I went with him on all those releases,” he said. “I’d get up at 5 and go up into the Sandhills and open the tailgate to release those birds.”
After he graduated from high school in 1981, he went to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he earned his degree in 1985 in natural resources with an emphasis on wildlife management.
“It’s all I ever wanted to do,” he said.
He worked a variety of seasonal and part-time jobs with Game and Parks, including working out of the head office in Lincoln, until coming to the Pondersosa WMA in May 1988.
“This was my first permanent job,” he said. “I’ve been in the same location the whole time.”
Nebraska’s native Audubon bighorn sheep herds had been killed off by hunters in the 1800s. Almost four decades ago, the first Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep were re-introduced to rugged habitat in the Wildcat Hills and the Pine Ridge. The project started at Fort Robinson in 1981 in an enclosed pasture.
The year he arrived, 21 sheep were released from the pen.
“That was the first release ever,” he said. “That was the beginning of the Fort Robinson herd. Two years later, they took the pen down and we let the rest go.”
Studnicka has been involved in all other bighorn captures and releases since. The ongoing project has produced five discrete herds, including Scotts Bluff County families in Cedar Canyon and Hubbard’s Gap. Bighorns were first reintroduced in the Wildcat Hills in 2001.
The animals have encountered health problems over the years, including a variety of respiratory diseases that are especially tough on lambs. Pasteurella pneumonia is believed to have killed half of the animals in the Pine Ridge herds during two major die-offs in 2005 and 2007. Part of the effort to control them has taken Studnicka into the hills to capture lambs to check them for disease.
Despite the occasional setbacks, western Nebraska now has several hundred sheep. The number varies with outbreaks of disease, but has approached 400, enough to permit an occasional hunt. Highly prized tags are auctioned off to help raise funding for bighorn research and management efforts.
A single father, Studnicka has tried to get his daughter interested in the family business, an effort that ended when she rode along with him to investigate a report that more than 20 antelope had stampeded into a fenceline corner and died during a major hail storm.
“It stank so bad she almost threw up. She got stung by a bee,” he said. “After that she didn’t want to come with me anymore.”
Studnicka documented much of his early work in photographs.
“I took a lot of pictures for a lot of years. I bought myself a Nikon and ended up going through two of them,” he said.
He lost a lot of his images, his guns and other family treasures during a house fire in 2012. Neighbors woke him up as flames climbed outside his home in Crawford. He crawled to his daughter’s bedroom and got her out. He passed out on the floor after inhaling smoke, but was rescued.
“That was terribly scary,” he said.
His new home includes a fish room full of aquariums, including a saltwater tank 8 feet long that holds 300 gallons, and a smoking room where he enjoys cigars. He maintains two YouTube channels focused on the two interests.
He’s been slowed down in recent years by health problems and walks with a cane. Born with clubbed feet, he underwent frequent surgeries until he was 12 and several more in later life.
“I have no ankle in my left foot,” he said. “It’s held together with five plates and 21 screws.”
He continues his work, however, taking part in recent sheep surveys in the Williams Gap area near McGrew and in the Pine Ridge.
“I can do surveys from a vehicle. I still get out and do stuff,” he said.
“I get paid to do stuff other people would pay to do. Who wouldn’t like to hike in and see a newborn bighorn lamb?” he added. “It’s been a lot of fun.”