Ekalaka, population 399, seat of Carter County, isn’t the kind of place where a U-Haul rolling into town goes unnoticed. The key word being “into” town, not out of town.
Carter County had lost population in every U.S. Census from 1940 through 2010, more often by percentages expressed in double digits. So, it was surprising when the 2020 Census announced earlier this month that Carter County was in the middle of a population boom. The growth estimate was one of a few in Montana that caused some head scratching over the data.
The Census had Carter County's population surging 22%, an addition of 255 people in the past decade, pushing the population to 1,415. The only Montana county with a stronger growth pace was Gallatin, with a 33% boom that translated into 29,447 more people.
“Hmm. I don’t know,” said Steve Rosencranz. The county commissioner wasn’t up on the latest Census news. In a part of the world where the latest population figures aren't a “hey, ma!” moment, word that Carter County was Montana's second fastest growing community didn't arrive for a week. “You might try the clerk and recorder’s office.”
The thing is, Clerk and Recorder Pam Castleberry isn't sure she could come up with 255 new residents either. Even the Census estimate of 67 new people in Ekalaka sounded a bit high. The number of registered voters in the county had increased by 36 people in the last decade. There had been some young adults return home to ranch. There had been maybe 12 new babies in the last four years, as well. But nothing suggested the growth captured in the Census.
There hadn’t been an economic boom to speak of. The Bakken oil shale boom that shocked economies to attention 100 miles to the north did nothing for Carter County.
“I don’t know if I can find 250 people for you,” Castleberry said. She regards the southeast Montana community as “the best kept secret in Montana. Ever.”
This is dinosaur country. One of the few complete skeletons of the duck-billed dinosaur known as a Anatotitan copei is in the Carter County Museum in Ekalaka. There’s a complete triceratops skull and a replica skeleton of a juvenile T. rex, along with other finds from dinosaur digs that are still producing bones up to 80 million years old. A half hour from town is the Capitol Rock Natural Landmark, a white limestone monolith resembling the U.S. Capitol building. Medicine Rocks State Park is right up the road on Highway 7. The only Ekalaka home listed on Zillow had an $85,000 asking price.
There is a likely reason for the Census numbers not matching up with reality in Carter County. As Mary Craigle of the Montana Census and Economic Information Center explained, the 2020 Census used differential privacy protections to keep respondents from being identified. To protect respondents’ identities, the U.S. Census inserted small, intentional errors, known as “noise” in the count. In large, sparsely populated Carter County, that noise is being noticed.
Where the statistical noise of the Census was most noticeable was at the Census tract level, areas where the population was anywhere between 15 to 8,000. Over several tracts the statistical differences balanced out so that the population for the region was accurate, but one tract looked at in isolation could be too high or too low. Montana's population of 1,084,225, up 9.6% in a decade, is unaffected by statistical noise.
“I don’t know if you saw the story about the place in Nebraska where it was a one-person town. Well, there’s now two people. And the person who lives there was saying there’s no second person,” said Kristina Barrett, of the Census. “We attribute that to statistical noise. That only happens at the Census tract level.”
That one-person Nebraska town was Monowi. The doubling of its population made headlines in the Omaha World-Herald.
Carter County was a Census tract. The Census tries not to create tracts that cross county lines. What that meant was that the statistical noise in the county was going to mask the true count. There are many rural Montana counties that make up a Census tract. The statistical errors are likely to be there.
Rosebud County off, too
There were other challenges with the Census count. In Rosebud County, where the Census reported a population decline of 904 people, a 10% drop, Bob Lee is certain the number isn’t right.
“Maybe a few people left, but I don’t think it was that many,” said Lee, a Rosebud County commissioner. “With COVID issues, I don’t know how accurate the count is. The biggest thing in Rosebud County is the reservation. It was very tough to count down there.”
The Northern Cheyenne spent the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic under lockdown. Several tribal governments attempting to stop the spread of COVID-19 had shut down all nonessential business including the census count on reservations. Some reservations didn’t open to enumerators until early October.
Still, there were losses in Rosebud County’s non-reservation incorporated communities. The Colstrip population declined 5.4%, a drop of 118 people according to the Census. The community built around a coal-fired power plant and coal mine saw two of the power plant’s four generators shut down just months before the Census count started.
Forsyth, the county seat, according to the Census, experienced a 7.4% population decline, a drop of 130 people.
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation town of Lame Deer experienced a 7.6% decline, losing 155 people over the decade.
Combined, the population of Rosebud County’s three largest communities represented 65% of the county population in 2010 and 67% during the Census last year.
Indian reservation residents are historically hard to contact and thus difficult to count for several reasons, starting with the Census policy of not mailing surveys to post office boxes. Anyone without a street mailing address doesn’t get a survey in the mail. In the 2010 Census of American Indian and Alaska Native populations were the highest undercounted populations. The Census put more enumerators in reservations this time to attempt direct contact with Native households. On Crow Indian Reservation, that in-person effort accounted for 80% of the count because the self-response rate by tribal members was just 20.6%.
On Northern Cheyenne, the self-response rate was 17%, including 10.4% of the people who responded to the Census survey online. The Northern Cheyenne response was one of the lowest response rates in the country, lower than Detroit, according to the Census. Detroit is usually the lowest.
But other tribes did better. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes had the best self-response rate of all the Montana tribes at 47.4% The Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes had a 37.1% self-response. Fort Belknap had a 32.7% response rate.
For the entire state of Montana, the self-response rate was 60.4%. Ten years earlier, the self-response was closer to 70%.
There were 18 of Montana’s 56 counties that lost population according to the Census. All but one of the counties were east of the Continental Divide. The state’s best population growth took place west of the divide. The eastern population drain was 2,800. As a percent of population, the biggest loss was in Liberty County, which declined 16%, or 380 people. Liberty’s new population is 1,959. Rosebud was second in population decline.
Powell County, population 6,946, where Deer Lodge is the county seat, was the only western county in the negative. Its population dipped 1%, a reduction of 81 people.