Visitors travel from all over the country to hunt big game in Powder River County, Montana, where the prairie and badlands topography has only about one resident for every two of its 3,300 square miles.

The area boasts of some of the best recreational hunting in the United States. In 2017, 171,466 hunters purchased licenses to hunt antelope from Montana’s  Fish, Wildlife, and Parks organization.

Custer National Forest in Powder River County, Montana (Photo courtesy of US Forest Service).

Settled among the rugged Bighorn Mountain Range in the southeastern part of the state, Powder River County’s economy is primarily dependent on recreation, according to reports from the Economic Research Service. In 2017, hunting contributed to over a quarter of a billion dollars to Montana’s economy.

Like many rural communities, the Powder River’s population fell from 2010 to 2020. But the trend reversed from 2020 to 2021, according to Census population estimates. After losing 3% of its population in the previous decade, the county’s population grew from 1,682 in 2020 to 1,702 in 2021.

Reports from the USPS show that 37 people moved to the area between 2020 and 2021, compared to 15 people between 2018 and 2019.

The numbers may seem small, but they amount to 2% growth last year.  

That growth would not have occurred if it were not for migration, since deaths outnumbered births in Powder River at the same time. 

Powder River was not alone. After a historic loss in population in the previous decade, rural, or nonmetropolitan, counties grew by 0.13% from 2020-21, according to Census estimates. 

In an article in Rural Sociology, University of New Hampshire demographer Ken Johnson says that about a third of nonmetro counties gained population from 2020 to 2021, despite a spike in deaths from Covid-19.

The growth was most pronounced in counties like Powder River, Montana, where recreational activities like hunting are a major part of the economy, or where there are attractive natural amenities like mountains, lakes, and seashores.

See Ken Johnson’s data brief on rural population change 2020-21.

Covid-19 and Population Change: Not as Simple as it Seems

One factor that changes population size is natural increase or decrease. That’s the net of births minus deaths. If more people die than are born, there is natural decrease. Natural increase occurs when more people are born than die in a county. Net migration, on the other hand, occurs when more people move into an area than those that leave.

During the pandemic, rural America exemplified a complicated relationship between net migration and natural increase.

Over a third of rural counties experienced population growth because of a rare combination of natural decrease and net migration between April of 2020 and July of 2021. Between 2010 and 2020, only 13% of rural counties experienced population growth in this way, according to Johnson’s research.

Between April of 2020 and July of 2021, rural America grew by 0.13%, even though the number of deaths were 0.29% higher than the number of births. Population growth only occurred in these places because people moved there, offsetting the effect of natural decrease. 

Between July 2020 and July 2021, Covid-19 produced a 20% spike in rural deaths and a 5% drop in births, exacerbating an existing trend of natural decrease in nonmetropolitan areas. Between 2020 and 2021, there were 131,000 more deaths than births in rural counties, compared to the two years prior when there were only 2,000 more deaths than births, Johnson reported.

Four out of five rural counties had more deaths than births between April 2020 and July 2021. Two years prior, only about half of rural counties had more people die than be born.

But because more people moved to rural places, the rural population did not plummet. Rural counties experienced more in-migration than urban areas over the course of the pandemic. While metropolitan areas showed no change in net migration, rural places overall experienced a net migration change of 0.43% between April 2020 and July 2021, Johnson reported. 

If it wasn’t for migration, rural America would have experienced a population drop since 2020. But Johnson’s study discovered rural growth in the 15 months after the 2020 Census as rural America grew by approximately 77,000 residents. Rural counties grew by 0.13% between 2020 and 2021, while urban areas only grew by 0.1%. 

Rural places grew more than urban ones not only by percentage, but in absolute numbers. While 167,000 people moved out of rural areas, 244,000 moved into rural areas, compared to only 13,000 that moved to urban areas. It’s rare that rural growth outpaces urban growth at such a rate, according to Johnson. 

Rural Population Change Is Not the Same Everywhere

Johnson found that almost all of rural growth happened in retirement destinations or in counties with economies dependent on recreation. Eighty percent of recreation and retirement-dependent counties experienced population growth because of migration between 2020 and 2021, compared to 36% of counties dependent on manufacturing and 43% of counties dependent on farming. 

In rural recreation areas like Powder River, Montana, there were 0.14% more deaths than births between April of 2020 and July of 2021. But net migration increased by 0.74%, contributing to an overall growth rate of 0.59% in rural recreation communities and a total of 137,000 more residents. 

Migration and Remote Work

Johnson suggests that new opportunities for remote work because of Covid-19 probably contributed to rural population growth in the months following the 2020 census. 

With more flexible work schedules, some are foregoing high costs of living in urban centers in favor of rural areas with more outdoor amenities. Sometimes referred to as ‘amenity migrants’, these rural living enthusiasts are taking advantage of pandemic-induced work changes. The places where amenity migrants congregate are now called ‘Zoom towns’, in reference to Boom towns, or areas that experienced population booms because of an expanding oil sector. 

Seasonal visitors with second homes in amenity destinations have probably also contributed to rural population growth, writes Johnson. Urbanites who were once just seasonal residents may have taken up more long term stays, possibly even turning their second homes into primary residences. 

Johnson writes that it’s too soon to tell whether these population trends will continue as the pandemic evolves. But if they keep up, we can expect rural America to grow by 1.3% by 2030, a 23% higher rate than the projected urban rate. 

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