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North Dakota Oil Boom Drives Population Growth in Historically Declining Region

Hannah Rosenblum

This story is part of an occasional series highlighting population and regional trends in the United States.

The population of the Northern Great Plains, a region that experienced declining populations for much of the 20th Century, surprisingly grew at a faster pace than that of the nation over the past decade.

The growth from 2010 to 2019 was primarily driven by 19 of the 106 counties that extend across parts of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming, hugging the border with Canada.

The five fastest-growing counties in the Northern Great Plains between 2010 and 2019 were also among the fastest-growing ones in the nation. All were in North Dakota, in areas that experienced an oil extraction boom.

The Northern Great Plains’ population was 1.1 million in 2019, up 8.3% since 2010, exceeding the 6.3% growth of the nation’s overall population during the same period.

But the region’s overall growth shows distinct patterns.

Uneven Population Growth

Nearly two-thirds (69) of the counties in the Northern Great Plains reported their highest decennial census populations between 1910 and 1930. The populations of another 18 counties peaked in censuses between 1940 and 2010. And a substantial share has had stable or declining populations for several decades.

The remaining 19 Northern Great Plains counties, mostly in metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, saw 2019 population estimates that surpassed their earlier census counts. 

The overall growth rate of counties in metro areas was 10% between 2010 and 2019.  The growth rate of the region’s counties within micro areas was 14.2%.

 

Fast-Growing Counties

The five fastest-growing counties in the Northern Great Plains between 2010 and 2019 were also among the fastest-growing ones in the nation. All were in North Dakota, in areas that experienced an oil extraction boom: McKenzie County, Williams County, Mountrail County, Stark County, and Dunn County.

McKenzie was the fastest-growing county in the nation during this period. All five of these counties experienced growth in the beginning of the decade, lost population in the middle of the decade, and then grew again.

 

Demographic Characteristics

Population growth patterns leave their mark in a region’s age and sex structure.

The Northern Great Plains had a higher proportion of population ages 55 and older and 14 and younger compared to the United States as a whole. The region had a lower proportion of population ages 15 to 54 with the exception of males between the ages of 35 and 39 — a potential result of the heightened demand for oil industry workers.

 

Industry and Occupation

Compared to the United States as a whole, the Northern Great Plains had a greater share of workers employed in the following industries:

  • Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining.
  • Construction.
  • Transportation and warehousing, and utilities.
  • Public administration.

Notably, the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and mining industry accounts for over 10% of workers in the Northern Great Plains but less than 5% of workers nationwide.

This region also had a higher percentage than the nation of people employed in natural resources, construction and maintenance jobs.

Census Infographics > The Northern Great Plains

This infographic illustrates population change as well as demographic and economic characteristics of The Northern Great Plains.

 

Hannah Rosenblum is a geographer in the U.S. Census Bureau’s Population Division.

 

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