Recently I had occasion to write about a proposed 65th county for Colorado, and observed that California, with seven times as many people and half again as much area, manages with a mere 58 counties. I also speculated that Iowa might be America's leader in "counties per capita," since it had 99 counties for about 3 million people.
But that was just speculation, and I wanted to be sure. It took some work , as I could not find a single place which listed each state's population, area and number of counties. Or to be more precise, county-like entities, since Louisiana has parishes, Alaska has boroughs, and several states have independent cities that are their own counties.
So it took most of an afternoon of computer work, but I got some answers. The state with the smallest average county population is North Dakota with 647,000 people and 53 counties, for an average population of 12,207. That's just a little less than the 12,303 in neighboring South Dakota, which has 66 counties and 812,000 people.
Montana, which ranks third here, is the leading Western state in this category: its 56 counties average 19,322 residents. Nebraska (93 counties) is fourth at 19,322 per county, and Wyoming, though it has only 23 counties, also has a low population, giving it an average of 23,662.
The state with the highest average county population is the most populous: California, nearly 37 million people in 58 counties, for an average of 637,265. The other leaders in average county population are in the East -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, etc. -- with one exception. Arizona has 6.6 million residents, but only 15 counties, making its average 439,733.
Other Western states tend toward the middle. As for average area per county, Western states are leaders here because they're pretty big, and there aren't many surprises in the rankings. Rhode Island, the smallest state, has the smallest counties (average 309 square miles), while Alaska, the largest, has the biggest counties, averaging 36,948 square miles).
After Alaska comes Arizona, 7,599; Nevada, 6,503; Wyoming, 4,252; New Mexico, 3,684; and Utah, 2,927.
What all this means is anybody's guess, but if you live in the rural West, you do find yourself paying a lot of attention to counties.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colo.