The U.S. Census indicates Wyoming's population is growing at faster clip than most states. But looks may be deceiving.
The recent slump in natural gas and coal prices is likely pushing workers and their families out of the state, a Wyoming economist says.
Wyoming's 2011-2012 data, measured by the U.S. Census Bureau between Julys, placed the state's growth rate fourth behind North Dakota, Washington, D.C. and Texas, with a 1.6 percent hike to 576,412 residents.
But the census data likely missed the recent job-killing slump in natural gas and coal prices, said Wenlin Liu, senior economist of the Wyoming Division of Economic Analysis. Job growth means population growth in Wyoming, Liu notes, and when the jobs leave, so does the population.
“Since the second quarter of 2012, Wyoming’s economy was dramatically slowing down,” he said.
Anne Alexander, an economist at the University of Wyoming, noted that growth in a third of Wyoming’s small counties is flat or in decline. The Census Bureau found a similar trend nationally.
For instance, Niobrara County lost 1.3 percent of its population from July 2011 to July 2012. Weston and Lincoln counties each lost about half a percent in population. Those are small numbers but a sizable portion of people in sparsely populated counties.
“Rural communities and counties are among the things that make this state special,” Alexander said. “They’re facing some real challenges in making them viable.”
But all is not lost. Growth remains strong in areas with booming energy economies. Natrona County is one such exception. Growth remains strong, with Casper as the nearest metro area to Converse County, the site of an oil boom, Liu said. Natrona County led the state with the largest population growth of 2,265, or 3 percent between July 2011 and July 2012, the Census Bureau reported.
“Oil prices are high,” Liu said. “However, for Wyoming’s natural gas and coal industry, we are in kind of a slow mode right now.”
Many Wyoming counties are familiar with the trend of boom and bust, which attracts then repels new residents. In one case, booming natural gas fields doubled the population of Sublette County between 1990 and 2011, according to census data.