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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) — Nine of Wyoming's 23 counties lost population in the first two years of the decade although the state experienced a 1 percent increase, according to estimates by the Bureau of the Census.

Campbell County led gainers, with 2,412 more residents thanks to a surge in coal-bed methane development.

Most of the counties that lost population from July 1, 2000, to July 1, 2002, were rural ones.

"For the past six to seven years, the number of births and number of deaths has been the same," Wenlin Liu, senior state economist said of the decline in rural areas. "There's no natural increase from births and deaths. That's not normal."

Typically, births exceed deaths across the United States. When the two figures are about the same in an area, it is a strong indication that young people are moving away, Liu said.

"Young people continue to move out because they don't have job opportunities," he said Friday. "It's been like that probably since we transferred from an agriculture-based industry to a service-oriented industry."

Wyoming is not unique. Rural counties in South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana and Nebraska have seen the same trend, he said.

Wyoming's estimated population on July 1, 2002, was 498,703, a gain of 4,921 over two years. About 3,000 more people moved into the state than moved out, and there were about 2,000 more births than deaths, Liu said.

The counties that experienced the most growth were Campbell (2,412 people, 7.2 percent); Sublette (320, 5.4); Johnson (299, 4.2); Converse (381, 3.2); and Lincoln (317, 2.2).

That growth can largely be attributed to a surge in natural gas production, Liu said.

Campbell County Commission Chairman Craig Mader agrees.

"There's a lot of building, a lot of manufactured housing," he said. "Definitely we have seen an increase in law-enforcement problems and drugs, and also we've seen an escalation in our assessed valuation, so I guess they go hand in hand."

On the other hand, Niobrara County's population has dwindled from 2,407 to 2,302, keeping it the smallest in the state.

"Our high school students leave, go on to college or go elsewhere to further their education and they don't come back," said Donna Ruffing, a rancher and county commissioner. "It's typical everywhere. Ranching is not a very viable vocation anymore."

Part of the population decline is attributable to closure of Lusk's hospital in 2000. However, a new hospital is scheduled to open in 2004, followed by expansion of the state women's prison, which Ruffing said will bring people back.

"There's a benefit to being small in one regard," she said. "I wouldn't want to have the problems like Campbell and Teton counties. They have altogether different problems than we have."

Teton County, which led the state with 93-percent growth in the 1990s, slowed to 1.8 percent over the past two years, with an additional 335 people.

Liu suspects the downturn in the national economy has slowed the influx of dot-com executives and others who can afford to live in Jackson Hole.

"Minimum-salary people can't afford to move there, can't even afford to rent an apartment," he said.

Other counties with growth are Laramie (1,287 more people, 1.6 percent); Sheridan (348, 1.3); Natrona (803, 1.2); Fremont (309, 0.9); Weston (50, 0.8); Crook (42, 0.7), Park (108, 0.4); and Uinta (50, 0.3).

The nine counties that dropped are Niobrara (105 fewer people, -4.4 percent); Hot Springs (181, -3.7); Washakie (245, -3.0); Goshen (294, -2.3); Big Horn (249, -2.2); Carbon (293, -1.9); Sweetwater (419, -1.1); Platte (82, -0.9); and Albany (272, -0.8).

Laramie County has the most people: 82,894, followed by Natrona, 67,336; Sweetwater, 37,194; Fremont, 36,113; Campbell, 36,110; and Albany 31,742.

"Laramie County's doing really good, last year and in recent years," Liu said. "As our neighbor Colorado's economy is doing bad, it really has discouraged young people moving out. If they can't find a job in Colorado, they just stay."

At the least populated end are Niobrara, 2,302; Hot Springs, 4,701; Crook, 5,929; Sublette, 6,240; and Weston, 6,694.

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