Missoula, Mont. — Montanans like to call their state “Big Sky Country,” or “The last best place.” Nowhere in these descriptions are there hints of crowds.
Yet Montana is set to reach a major milestone later this year when the state tops 1 million residents for the first time, according to projections by the U.S. Census.
The slowest-growing state in one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions, Montana will remain a vast and largely empty place. Don’t expect to wait in line at fly-fishing streams. And morning commutes will still average 17 minutes, enough to make big city dwellers cry.
Even so, some Montanans are treating the advancing milestone with dread.
“That’s the question I get most commonly: Are we at a million?” said Mary Craigle, Census director for the state. When she says no, people are pleased. “They don’t want more neighbors.”
The 2010 Census counted 994,416 Montanans, and the millionth Montanan is projected to appear sometime in November or December, Craigle said. Population growth is estimated through births, deaths, and people moving in and out of the state, she said.
If the Census results are accurate, the millionth Montanan will likely show up in a community near Yellowstone or Glacier national parks, the college towns of Missoula or Bozeman, or the city of Billings. That’s where growth is concentrated. Most of the other communities were either static or lost population in the decade.
Montanans know the marker is a psychological milestone, a sort of closing of the frontier.
“Once over a million, we get put into a different ballpark with other states,” said Bob Clark, with the Sierra Club environmental group in Missoula.
There are some positives to growth. Clark said a rising population may return to Montana its second seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Montana is the largest state to have just one House member.