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(Editor’s Note: Many courses taught on the University of Montana campus highlight all that is Montana, from the grandeur of the Montana prairie to the science that explains our wildlife and economy. “This is Montana” is a series of news articles coordinated by Rick and Susie Graetz, founders of Montana Magazine, and members of the UM Department of Geography. They feature the state’s landscape, economy and science, and the history played out in Montana.)

Most Montanans view their state as being largely rural in character because of its many open, sparsely populated spaces and the lack of any truly large cities. However, in reality Montana is steadily becoming a largely urban state, at least in terms of where most of the state’s residents live and work. A key aspect of Montana’s growth and change is the steady emergence of its small cities as growing centers of commerce and trade, as well as high quality places to live and work. These growing cities have become the engines of Montana’s economy.

Map 106.1 shows the distribution of Montana’s population at the time of the 2010 census. Each red dot represents 30 residents mapped at the census block level according to where they live.  The dots concentrate in the state’s most urban places in and around the state’s primary regional population centers. Circles are drawn around these centers at distances of 50 miles from their cores. The populations residing within each of these 50-mile zones are then counted and shown in the map. At the time of the 2010 census, about 80 percent of all state residents lived in or within 50 miles of the state’s seven largest urban centers. What’s more, growth by only five of the regional centers accounted for virtually all of Montana’s population growth in the past decade.

Most of Montana’s population growth over the past three decades has been concentrated in the Western Mountain region – growth largely spurred by shifting population migration patterns with more and more people, mainly from other western states, moving to western Montana. The 21 counties of the Western Mountain region accounted for 58 percent of the state’s total population in 1990, and this grew to nearly 64 percent by 2017. What primarily attracts more and more people to western Montana are the region’s mountains, high quality streams and lakes, and large concentrations of public lands, both federal and state.  These natural amenities are increasingly powerful magnets for new migrants to the state.  

Another key aspect of Montana’s growth and change is the steady emergence of its small cities as growing centers of commerce and trade and high quality places to live and work. Most of these centers also are located in the Western Mountain region, including Missoula, Kalispell, Bozeman, Helena and Butte. Montana’s two other major regional centers, Billings and Great Falls, are more formally located in Montana’s Central Front. Figure 106.2 shows counts for the number of persons living within the 50-mile zones of the seven largest regional centers in 2010 and 2000. Outside of these zones, Montana’s total population actually shrank a bit, indicating the state’s growing urbanization.

The populations contained within these zones can be considered largely urban and range from as high as 161,000 for Billings, Montana’s single largest city, to 67,000 for Butte. Missoula has the second largest concentration of population with over 159,000 living in its 50-mile zone.  Kalispell and Bozeman are next with 113,000 and 105,000, respectively. Great Falls with 87,000 and Helena with more than 77,000 are next, followed by Butte.

The Census Bureau formally treats incorporated places and census-designated places with at least 2,500 residents as “urban.” However, larger regional population centers exerting influences on their surrounding areas because of their size and urban characteristics are classified as “metropolitan statistical areas” (metros) and “micropolitan statistical areas” (micros). A metro area contains a core county or counties with an urban core area of 50,000 residents or more. A micro area has an urban core of at least 10,000 residents but less than 50,000. Montana has three metro core areas: Billings, Missoula and Great Falls. And it has four micro core areas: Kalispell, Bozeman, Helena and Butte.  

In figure 106.1, the counties in which these seven centers are located are teal colored and designated as “regional center counties.” Counties adjacent to these are shown in a lighter teal color. These counties account for most of the commuting zones and trade areas of the larger centers. Other less populated and more isolated counties are shown in the light-tan color. Residents of these counties live in the state’s more rural areas. We also can measure the growing urbanization of the state’s population by looking at county data. Figure 106.3 shows populations for all of Montana’s counties in 2017, with the more urban regional center counties at the left and more rural and isolated counties at the right.

Examining recent and past population trends using these three groupings of counties helps us see how differently Montana’s population has changed in its more urban counties, counties near these and in the more rural and isolated ones. Figure 106.4 examines year-by-year population change for these groupings of counties since 1990. There were three periods in which Montana’s population experienced significantly higher growth. The first was in the early-to-mid ’90s, with the greatest growth in 1992 and 1993. The seven regional center counties accounted for most of this growth, with their combined populations swelling by more than 12,000 residents in both years. Outlying counties near these regional centers also had significant growth, including an increase of almost 6,000 residents in 1993 and 1994. There was very little growth in the more rural areas of the state signified by the 24 counties in the tan color.

A second spurt of growth occurred in the late ’90s, increasing each year up until 2007. The nationwide economic recession formally began in December 2007, and its impacts intensified in 2008 and 2009. During this second period of growth, most of the population gains once again centered in the state’s more urban counties, with some growth continuing in their surrounding areas. The 24 isolated and more rural counties together had losses.

As the national and state economies have recovered, a third period of population growth has emerged in Montana extending up to 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.  Once again the gains have been largely in the regional center counties, with some gains also continuing in the counties adjacent to these. The more rural areas of the state now are seeing fairly pronounced population losses in 2016 and 2017. As a result of these patterns of population growth over the past three decades, the share of the state’s total population residing in the seven regional center counties has risen from 58 percent in 1990 to nearly 64 percent in 2017. The share of the population in the state’s more rural counties has fallen from 16.5 percent of the total in 1990 to less than 12 percent.

While Montana’s largest cities are small by national standards, they are large enough to participate in many aspects of a growing U.S. economy that largely escape less populated areas of the country. Economic growth in the past three decades has concentrated in many sectors within the overall services economy. These include health care services, professional and technical services like engineering and legal services, and financial services. Construction also is rebounding and growing in Montana’s more urban areas, as is retail and wholesale trade.  Meanwhile, employment and labor earnings growth have been stagnant or declining in some of the other sectors that are more uniformly distributed across Montana such as agriculture and manufacturing.

So there is broad restructuring occurring in Montana’s economy, and the state’s more urban areas and regional centers are leading the way in this economic transition. This will be explored in greater detail in the next article in this series.

Larry Swanson is a Ph.D. economist and regional scientist. He is director and Scott Family Senior Fellow of the O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West at the University of Montana. The center is a regional studies and public education program.

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