SHERRILL, Iowa — As members of his hunting party looked on, Mike Laugesen crouched in a gully and started to dress the eight-point buck he just shot.
He then used a hunting knife to cut a notch on a state deer tag to affix to the animal. He paused as he fiddled with the paper.
"Easy there, Muzzy. We don't need to take you to the hospital," said Stuart Schueller jokingly, referring to Laugesen by his childhood nickname.
"I'm too old for this ... I'm not a young buck anymore," quipped Laugesen, 61.
"He was," said Peter Sullivan, 16, gesturing to the deer.
The hunting party's banter filled the opening weekend of Iowa's first shotgun deer hunting season, held last month.
It remains the state's most popular season and is when the majority of the annual deer harvest occurs. Hunters take time off from work and sometimes their significant others to don blaze orange and search for antlered quarry.
But hunting is a sport in decline.
Only 4 percent of Americans who are at least 16 years old hunt, which equates to about 11.5 million people. That represents an about 50 percent decrease from the 8 percent rate in 1968.
While the impact in the Midwest is tempered compared to other parts of the country, any reduction ripples through the economy.
Hunters spend an estimated $26.2 billion annually on hunting-related services and products, including travel, equipment and land purchases or leasing, according to a 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
To preserve a tradition older than America, states are attempting to bring new relevance to hunting and market the sport to diverse audiences. But those in the conservation community who hope to reverse the trend face multiple challenges.
In recent decades, hunting license sales have decreased markedly.
About 223,000 people in Iowa held hunting licenses in 2018, a 14 percent decrease from 1988, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald reported.
Decreases in Illinois and Wisconsin were less pronounced, at 8 percent and 3 percent respectively over the same time period. Currently, about 306,000 people hold hunting licenses in Illinois and 706,000 in Wisconsin.
Many enthusiasts struggle to locate land on which to hunt.
"There is a demand for it, but I don't know how accessible it is for some people," said Jason Diedrich, owner of River Valley Pheasant Hunting Club in Scales Mound, Illinois. "If you don't have a farm, it can be hard to find a spot to go."
Counties in the tri-states have experienced a loss of wildlife habitat with the growth of agriculture. The populations of some species, such as pheasants, have subsequently declined, reducing hunting opportunities.
Bob Wooden, president of Jo Daviess County Pheasants Forever, said that when he moved to Scales Mound more than 30 years ago, much of the ground was designated for Farm Service Agency's Conservation Reserve Program and was ripe with birds.
Enrolled farmers are paid to remove environmentally sensitive land from production and plant flora that will improve environmental health.
In 2017, 14,000 acres were designated as CRP ground in Jo Daviess County — half the acreage enrolled in the program at its peak in 2005. Surrounding counties throughout the tri-state region experienced similar declines.
Less game to hunt makes it harder to engage prospective participants, Wooden said.
"It's like following football," he said. "Everyone follows the winning team. Once that team starts losing, the crowds ain't so big."
Laugesen, Schueller and Sullivan are fortunate. They have Dan Reich.
He has hosted deer hunters in Sherrill since 1996. The group roams the farm fields and bluffs on properties belonging to Reich and his neighbors.
Opening weekend in Sherrill brought dreary weather and thick mud. On the first day, Reich's hunting party of six warmed themselves over hot bowls of venison chili in his log cabin.
Peter Sullivan's father, Jim Sullivan, a Dubuque chiropractor, joined the group, along with Kevin Tischhauser, a supervisor at Flexsteel Industries Inc., and Dennis Hefel, a Dubuque County farmer.
Some chatted about past hunting escapades and meat seasonings, while others observed that, if it were up to them, they would discipline kids the way it used to be done when they were young.
When reflecting on hunting's decreasing popularity, urbanization and the increasing use of technology often are highlighted as barriers. Another challenge can be found in Laugesen's legs.
"(They) don't work like they used to," he said while monitoring a fence line during a deer drive. "I'm slowing down."
Laugesen started hunting in his early teens. With his two older brothers, they walked the railroad tracks in the Point area north of Dubuque, where they would shoot rabbits and squirrels.
He started to deer hunt as an adult. These days when party hunting, he prefers the role of blocking.
"It's just easier on your body," Laugesen said.
According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, 60 percent of hunters in 2016 were at least 45 years old.
Businesses are taking note.
"Hunting is definitely down," said Terry Lyght, owner of Bullseye Sports in Platteville, Wisconsin. "Your older people are getting too old, so they are done hunting."
It is not just businesses that could feel the impact. State wildlife officials said fewer hunters in the field increases the difficulty of maintaining a healthy deer population.
Hunting represents the primary method states employ to manage their deer herds.
"If we don't have deer hunters in Iowa, it's going to get really ugly really quick as far as, how do we control that population," said Chris Ensminger, wildlife research supervisor with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.
The department estimates the state's deer herd of about 500,000 could double within three years if left unchecked, damaging forest ecosystems and increasing the risk of motor vehicle collisions.
A state committee recommended in 2009 that the Iowa DNR issue enough tags to result in an annual harvest of 100,000 to 110,000 deer.
Although the number of hunters in Iowa has declined, deer tag sales hold steady at about 338,000 each hunting season. For all seasons, through December, more than 90,000 deer were killed in the state.
That is good news for state wildlife biologists, who rely on hunters to thin the herd, which can reduce the spread of disease.
At the forefront of their minds is chronic wasting disease. The always-fatal condition is transmitted among deer through direct contact with the bodily tissues and fluids of infected animals and from contaminated environments.
Although there is no strong evidence that CWD can spread to people, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises people to not eat meat from infected animals.
CWD was first detected in Iowa in April 2014 in Allamakee County. Twenty-nine more deer in the state have tested positive to date, including some in Clayton County.
The disease also has been confirmed across Wisconsin, with more than 5,100 cases detected since 2001, primarily in the southern part of the state.
"Every year, the number of positives has been increasing," said Eric Canania, a deer biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
From April through December, 39 deer tested positive for CWD in Grant County, 19 in Lafayette County, 372 in Iowa County and four in Crawford County.
While Iowa and Wisconsin have implemented surveillance programs and issued additional deer licenses in CWD-affected counties, Illinois also utilizes a targeted sharpshooting program to cull its deer population.
Ten cases of CWD were detected in Jo Daviess County during the 2017 fiscal year.
Laugesen thinks some hunters might fall away from the sport as CWD spreads, yet state officials rely on hunters to voluntarily submit samples to monitor CWD's prevalence.
"We'll sample over 6,000 deer this year across the state, and there is no way we, as DNR personnel, could do that and still do (our) other duties," said Jim Coffey, Iowa DNR forest wildlife research biologist.
Shrinking hunting participation also reduces state revenue from license and tag sales, which fund state habitat and conservation projects.
An additional source of funding is excise taxes collected on firearms and ammunition sales. The Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act distributes the tax dollars but requires states to match a portion of the funding.
During the 2018 federal fiscal year, Iowa received $11.5 million; Illinois received $16.3 million; and Wisconsin received $23.5 million.
The State of Wisconsin matches the federal dollars using the volunteer hours of hunter education instructors, but it might not be able to rely on that method in the future.
"If the number of hunters is dropping off, will there be as many hunter-ed instructors and will they be contributing the same number of hours?" asked Emily Iehl, who oversees hunter recruitment for the Wisconsin DNR. "Maybe it will be sustainable, but if not, where do we get our match funding?"
Dubuque resident Jon Roraff recalled duck hunting with his father when he was 12 years old. About 35 years later, he is still at it, now with his sons.
"I like being outside," he said. "You see a lot of things that most people will never see — the wildlife, coyotes, owls."
Roraff has supervised hunts for kids from non-hunting families, but he perceives a declining interest among youth generally.
"Some kids just don't want to sit out in the cold," he said. "It's not the most fun all the time."
Peter Sullivan, a junior at Dubuque Senior High School, is an exception. He harvested his first deer during Iowa's 2018 shotgun season.
"I lost sight of it, and it came right out of the woods, and I shot it right through the lungs," he said.
While state officials offer special youth hunts and have lowered or even eliminated minimum hunting ages to increase participation, the Wisconsin DNR now is looking to expand opportunities for adults.
"If you're trying to recruit a truly new hunter and you're looking at a kid who did not grow up in a hunting family, that just presents a lot of barriers," Iehl said. "You basically have to involve a parent or guardian. It's almost like trying to teach two people to learn to hunt instead of just one just because kids don't have the same resources that adults do."
State wildlife agencies also hope to rebrand the sport.
At first glance, efforts to recruit hunters face a wall of disinterest, but state and industry experts see grounds for optimism.
"There is no question that the number of hunters is lower than the historical high of now what would be many years ago, but there has been some stabilization or small increase of numbers measured by license issuance in some regions of the country," said Mike Bazinet, public affairs director of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.
A 2011 survey conducted by the firearms trade association found that 87 percent of respondents had not hunted the previous year and 73 percent said they were not interested in hunting in the future.
The association intends to release an updated study later this year.
According to the foundation, hunting and target shooting's greatest competitors are other outdoor activities, including camping, fishing and hiking.
Recruiters are attempting to capitalize on this trend by showing non-hunters that the sport offers an additional means to appreciate nature in the 21st century.
"It was much of a utilitarian view of wildlife at the turn of the (20th) century, and now we've seen changes to more humanistic or mutualistic view — of people not wanting to use wildlife so much as wanting to connect with them," Iehl said.
Food consumption continues to be a driving motivation for new hunters, especially among millennials who exhibit increased interest in local and sustainable sourcing.
"But it's a little bit harder to obtain protein that fits that lifestyle, and hunting is one way to do that," Iehl said.
The Wisconsin DNR intends to expand its Hunt for Food program to draw from that demographic. During the 2018 fiscal year, classes attracted more than 200 novice hunters in Wisconsin.
Over the previous two years, Iowa has experienced a slight uptick in hunting license sales — an increase of about 6,000 hunters from 2016 to 2018.
While states move forward with reinvention, Laugesen observes strength in the sport's tradition.
"Think of all the nature that you see," he said. "And the thrill of the hunt. After you hunt so long, you're always thinking of the big one — once you get that chance of getting that big trophy deer."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.