The Bakken is booming. New US Census Bureau population estimates indicate that 7 out of the dozen fastest growing counties in the United States over the last four years are in the Bakken region of North Dakota and Montana. Yes, large metro counties (Harris County, Texas; Los Angeles County, California; Maricopa County, Arizona) gained the greatest gross number of new residents. Yet aside from one metro area in Florida, all of the dozen fastest growing counties on a percentage basis started the decade with populations under 50,000.
McKenzie County (Watford City), North Dakota, grew by an estimated 72% from 2010 to 2014, and over 18% in the last year alone. Williams County (Williston), ND, grew by 42% over four years, and 8.7% last year. Mountrail (Stanley), Stark (Dickinson), Dunn (Manning) and Divide (Crosby) counties in ND and Richland County (Sidney) Montana, all in the Bakken oil play, added 17%-25% over the last four years. Andrews and Sterling counties in the Permian Basin of West Texas also added population at a good clip.
The estimates, of course, cover through the 1st of July, so we’ll have to wait a year before we see the population impacts of the more recent decline in the price of oil. While we are seeing substantial retractions in new exploration nationwide (rig counts are down 48% over the last year) and the lowest-in-the-nation unemployment rate in North Dakota is now ticking up, anecdotally it seems more a needed breather than a turn to bust quite yet.
The other fastest growing counties include St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, still recovering from Hurricane Katrina; Fredericksburg (independent city) Virginia, at the end of the commuter rail line south of fast-growing Washington, DC; and Wasatch County (Heber City) Utah, which is attracting commuters to the mountains above Salt Lake City.
(Interactive map of year-on-year population change from Governing magazine.)
Counties with the greatest population losses were also rural counties, but more spread out across the country and the economy. Bent County (county seat Las Animas), on the agricultural Eastern Plains of Colorado, led the field with an estimated -13.5% decline in population between 2010-2014. Neighboring Las Animas County (Trinidad) lost -8.8%. Like DeBaca County, to the south on the High Plains of eastern New Mexico, these places have suffered long-term economic restructuring made even more difficult by recent drought. (Note the chart above is inverted for readability.)
Further south, the Census estimates that Presidio County, in the Big Bend of Texas, lost 11.4% of its population since 2010, but had seen healthy population growth since 1970. The Presidio County seat is the eclectic border town of Marfa. Marfa is known for its arts community; the Coen Brothers filmed their movie No Country for Old Men there in 2006. Marfa is also a long-way down a two-lane road from most employment opportunities.
Presidio County is outside the Permian Basin. Schleicher County, also in West Texas, is at the southern end of the Permian; however, it is dominated by natural gas drilling which has been in a bust for several years now (although Sterling County, with healthy estimated growth, also has a lot of natural gas wells). Dickens and King counties are on the far north edge of the Permian, in the Texas panhandle. Oil and gas translates to boom and bust, boom and bust.
In the Southeast, Hancock County, Georgia (county seat Sparta), is part of the Milledgeville Micropolitan area. Milledgeville, as readers of my Civil War blog will recall, was the historic state capital of Georgia. Hancock County’s population contracted for many years, then grew during the 1990s before contracting again since.
On the West Coast, Lassen County, California, lies in the Sierra Mountains (county seat Susanville) northwest of Reno. The county has grown consistently except for a marked contraction in the 1950s, but like many areas across the West has been hit by declines in the timber industry.
Back in the Rocky Mountains, Butte County, Idaho, is home to Craters of the Moon National Monument in the Snake River Plain. Next door, Clark County, is the smallest county in the state, gained an estimated six residents last year, but not enough to offset an -11% loss since 2010. King County, Texas is even smaller. A small absolute gain or loss translates into a large percentage statistic. With populations under 1,000, who knows if the Census Bureau’s sampling procedure is all that accurate?