Montana is the fourth-largest state by area at 147,040 square miles. Though it is in the top five for the largest state, it is the eighth-least populous state and the third-least densely populated state. And it seems every article written regarding Big Sky Country talks about everyone moving to Montana. However, even though the housing market is booming, and towns are growing, not everyone is seeing the rise in population. Three counties in the western state experienced a population decline of at least 1.6%. Three more counties lost .5 to 1.5% of their population in just one year! The numbers may not look big on paper, but these small percentages equate to hundreds if not thousands of people. That’s a lot, considering Montana is already the third-least densely populated state.
The western state is defined by its diverse terrain. It ranges from the great Rocky Mountains to the wide-open spaces of the Great Plains. The state is a beautiful vast wilderness, and its resources have helped those who moved to where the sky touches the Earth. In fact, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, Montana’s population expanded by nearly 17,000 people from July 2021 to July 2022, a growth rate of 1.5%. This growth falls right behind Florida, Idaho, South Carolina, Texas, and South Dakota.
But what about the counties that are being left in the western dust? So, what are the fastest-shrinking counties in Montana? Find out how much of their population they have lost in recent years, and why they aren’t seeing the same growth as their neighbors.
Top 5 States by Area
|Area (square miles)
Top 10 States by Least Population
Top 10 states With the Lowest Population Densities
|Density (people per square mile)
1. Richland County
The county sits on the border of North Dakota in the northeast corner of Montana known as NEMONT, which is home to multiple shrinking counties. According to the U.S. Census, the county’s population is 11,237, a 2.2% decrease from 2020. Population estimates show that 36 of the state’s 56 counties experienced a natural decrease in population with deaths outnumbering births. However, Richland County is experiencing more than just natural loss. The county lost almost 200 residents in one year, which again, may not seem like a lot, but in a low-populated state, any statistic counts!
The largest city in the county is Sidney with 6,000 residents and around 400 businesses. It is nestled in the Yellowstone River Valley. The eastern city’s flat lands lend themselves to farming, making Sidney the hub of a regional agriculture and energy economy.
2. Rosebud County
The county of gently rolling hills is the fourth largest county by land area in the state. A large portion of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation lies within Rosebud County as well. And of the 56 counties in Montana, it is the 22nd most populated. However, Tosebud County reportedly lost the largest number of residents, with 904 fewer people in 2020 than in 2010 according to the Census. This means the population of 8,088 saw a 2.9% decline.
Rosebud County is home to the communities of Forsyth and Colstrip. With a population of 2,096, Colstrip is the largest city in Rosebud County. It covers 25.2% of the total population of the county. The city’s primary industries are coal mining and electricity production, which could be the reason for the population decline and for Rosebud County being one of the fastest shrinking counties in Montana. As jobs turn to more sustainable resources, jobs like coal mining are becoming obsolete.
3. Wheatland County
Another shrinking county in Montana is Wheatland County with a population of 2,259. This small population means that any decline is a large decline. The county lost 33 residents in one year, which for most counties is just a blip on the radar. But for a county with just over 2,000 people working and living in the area, it is a large amount.
Harlowton is the biggest community, with 1,170 people calling it home, most of the county’s population. The county sits at the southern boundary of central Montana, and its economy mainly depends on agriculture with cattle and sheep ranches. Farms in the area produce wheat, oats, barley, and hay. And even though a 90-tower wind farm was constructed to become another economic engine, jobs are sparse in the county unless you are a needed farmer.
4. Liberty County
The north-central county saw the largest reported population decline. According to the 2020 Census, the county’s largest decline was between 2019 and 2020 when the population dropped 17.9%. The population fell from 2,339 to 1,959. Also, between 2010 and 2021, the county shrank by an average of 1.5% per year.
The county has barely 2,000 residents across 915,189 acres with Chester being the primary population center with 847 residents. Once again, this county is run by agriculture. In fact, 97% of the economy in Liberty County is supported by farming of some kind. The county’s farmlands produce cereal and pulse crops along with miles of grazing lands. The average farm size in Liberty County is around 3,714 acres.
5. Big Horn County
Another farming county, Big Horn County is a rural community of around 13,124 residents. It is located in southeastern Montana, about an hour’s drive from Billings. It is the sixth-largest county at approximately 5,023 square miles. This open space once again makes the county one of the fastest-shrinking counties in Montana. It experienced a decline of between .5 and 1.5% between 2020 and 2021.
On top of being supported by agriculture which makes jobs scarce, the county is also mostly part of the Crow Indian Reservation. Reservation poverty affects the county making it the second-poorest county in Montana which adds to the population decline.
6. McCone County
The county is a sportsman’s paradise, and can draw visitors, but can’t get them to stay as residents. McCone County also lost between .5 and 1.5% of its population yearly, leaving around 1,700 residents. It encompasses 2,594 square miles, and Circle is the single incorporated community in the county and the county seat. Richland, another shrinking county in Montana, borders it to the east.
Even with Fort Peck Reservoir to the west and some of the best big game hunting in the state, McCone County has an estimated 2023 population growth rate of 0%. Again, the county is supported by agriculture and jobs are sparse.
Summary of the Fastest-Shrinking Counties in Montana
|Percent Change (2022)
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