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Pierce, neighboring counties post population losses in 2020 Census

By Sue Sitter - | Sep 11, 2021

Like many rural counties in North Dakota, Pierce County continues to show a shrinking population, according to data released by the North Dakota Department of Commerce during the summer of 2021.

Pierce County saw a decrease of 367 residents over the decade, its population dipping to 3,990 from 4,357 in 2010. A further breakdown put the loss in the City of Rugby, whose population dropped by 367 from 2,876 in 2010 to 2,509 in 2020.

Kevin Iverson, a demographer with the state department of commerce, said the decline in population followed a decades-long trend seen in rural counties.

“That’s been going on for a very long period of time,” Iverson said of the decline. “Even though we’ve had the largest population gain (as a state) in 100 years, still, the majority of the counties actually lost population. Thirty of the 40 counties in the state lost population.”

North Dakota’s population grew by 13.3 percent during the last decade, rising from 672,591 to 765,309.

“If you look at the population of Pierce County going back to 1920, in 1920 it had a population of almost 9,300 people,” Iverson said. “It popped up a little bit more in 1940 and has been decreasing since.”

“Every county that bordered Pierce County also lost population,” Iverson added.

Iverson said the department of commerce expected the population decrease.

“Everything that had been showing in the population estimates and the migration data that we were receiving through the decades pretty much pointed in this direction. It’s really not a surprise.”

Iverson said Pierce County’s population showed a slower decline than expected, however. “Pierce came in a little bit above the estimate (for population loss),” Iverson said. “They had estimated that the county would come in at 3928 and it came in at 3990, so it beat the estimate by 1.4 percent.”

The census data showed McHenry County, Pierce County’s neighbor to the west, saw 50 fewer residents than in 2010. Wells County to the south decreased by 225 people, while Sheridan County to the southwest decreased by 56 people. To the northeast, Towner County’s population decreased by 84. Eastern neighbor Benson County saw a large drop in population, losing 696 residents, while Rolette County lost 1750 residents, the most in north central North Dakota. Rolette County’s population declined by 12.6 percent.

“I think the one thing that did surprise me a little was the percentage decrease in Rolette County,” Iverson said. “I just didn’t think it would be that great. I expected they would hold their own, but that obviously didn’t happen.”

“American Indian populations have been growing, but the tribal population actually showed a fairly significantly decline in Rolette County,” Iverson said.

“The percentage is fairly substantial,” Iverson added. “It looks like Turtle Mountain lost over 3,000 American Indian residents out of the tribal area. They did seem to manage to hang onto some of those numbers in Rolette County outside of the tribal lands but it seems to be that as American Indian educational attainment rates have been going up, they’re finding work but they’re not finding it in tribal areas. So, they’re probably moving to where they’re finding work.”

“And that seems to be again, we’re more likely finding them in the urban areas like the rest of the rural population that we’re finding are moving to those areas,” Iverson said.

North Dakota District 14 Representative Jon Nelson said he has seen the same trends both as a legislator for the state and a Pierce County resident. Like Iverson, Nelson said the shift in population away from ag-based counties didn’t surprise him.

“With farming techniques improving over the years, you don’t need the large number of people to work them, and the surrounding communities are getting less and less dependent on agriculture,” Nelson said.

Nelson said the population loss in Pierce and other District 14 counties would affect how the district is re-drawn by legislators in the coming months. Sen. Jerry Klein, who also represents District 14, sits on the state redistricting committee.

Nelson said when new lines are drawn, District 14 might possibly pick up Eddy County, its neighbor to the southeast, which includes the city of New Rockford. Nelson said he didn’t believe his home district was in danger of dissolving like others in ag-based counties, which lost substantial amounts of residents. “But I can’t say it would never happen,” Nelson cautioned.

Rugby Mayor Sue Steinke said the population shift away from agricultural counties didn’t surprise her, either.

“This isn’t just a Rugby problem or a Pierce County problem,” she said, referring to a map of North Dakota Counties with losses represented by various shades of green. “These counties in the green shades rely heavily on agriculture for their economic foundations. As farms get larger and larger with more technological advances to make farmers efficient there is less population in the rural settings of these ND counties and cities that mainly depend on the ag economy for a good share of their economic growth. As a result, many of these counties will see populations decline.”

While rural parts of the state continue to decline in population, counties with larger cities have seen growth in recent decades.

“Essentially, what the trend has been is agriculturally-based economies, those that are pretty much farming oriented have been losing population,” Iverson explained. “The urban areas, or those with more than one economic driver – certainly the oil patch area, where there’s both agriculture and oil – have been gaining, as well as the urban areas. People have been moving into the cities and that’s been going on for quite a while.”

In the Oil Patch, McKenzie County saw a whopping 131.2 percent gain in residents. Williams County jumped in population by 82.8 percent.

Closer to Pierce County, Ward County saw a 13.4 percent population increase due to growth in Minot. Ramsey County, home to Devils Lake, grew by 1.3 percent.

Steinke said rural counties could thrive and grow if they shifted to more diverse economies.

“We here in Rugby are blessed to have Rugby Manufacturing, and the wind towers to help share the economic and tax burden of the county. Everywhere you look in ND employers need employees and Pierce County is no exception.”

“Along with needing employees there needs to be a hand in hand effort to attract workers with middle income housing and amenities for their families to want to come to communities like Rugby,” Steinke added.

“When looking at the map you see our state’s larger cities have continued to gain population largely in part to the amenities that complete the balance between their work and family life,” Steinke added.

“I believe Rugby can grow in the future,” Steinke said. “We have filled our Shopko building with a great ND company when many cities still have their Shopkos empty. We’ve added Dollar General and we’ve managed to keep our downtown streets full of businesses. Rugby has even more opportunities to grow if the citizens of Rugby want it to grow. The entire state of ND needs workers and it will require a partnership with cities, counties and state government to solve this problem.”

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