How the West has changed since the last census

Population growth has slowed overall, but the West continues at a fast pace, adding three congressional seats.


Traffic on Colorado’s Front Range in January. Colorado, Montana and Oregon added enough residents since the last census to each gain an additional congressional seat.
AP Photo / David Zalubowski

On Monday, the U.S. Census Bureau released state population counts from the 2020 census. This new data will determine apportionment and congressional representation. Here is a look at what those preliminary numbers mean for the West.

While census numbers show that the nation’s population growth has slowed to its lowest rate since the Great Depression, states in the West have continued their long-term increase in population. Eight of the top 15 fastest-growing states are in the West, with Utah, Idaho and Nevada in the top five. (See map below for specific numbers.) Utah’s growth was the highest in the country, at 18%. Meanwhile, Alaska and Wyoming remained among the states with the smallest populations, with Wyoming currently the slowest-growing — and smallest — Western state. “Change in employment always tends to drive and lead the change in migration for Wyoming, and generally speaking, people tend to move to areas where economies are vibrant,” said Wenlin Liu, chief economist with the Economic Analysis Division, Wyoming Department of Administration and Information, in a statement on Monday. “The economy nationwide, particularly in neighboring states such as Colorado, Utah, and Idaho showed strong expansions, which attracted many Wyoming energy workers and residents during the second half of the decade.”

 These population changes also mean changes in the region’s political representation in Washington, D.C. Three of the five states that will gain new seats in Congress are in the West: Montana will get another seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, bringing it to a historic high of two, while both Colorado and Oregon also gained seats. California, however, lost a seat for the first time in its history.

The Census Bureau will send state-specific data to the states by August, after which the states will re-draw their districts for the next Congress in 2023. In the West, a mixture of state legislatures, political-appointee commissions and independent committees are responsible for redistricting.

Additional data concerning age, race and other census demographics will not be released until later this year. That information will offer some insight into whether or not certain demographics, including many Latino and Indigenous communities, were impacted by an undercount owing to the pandemic, a historic wildfire season and an unusually early census deadline. Get-out-the-count organizers like Jaime Gloshay (White Mountain Apache), the founder of New Mexico-based Native Women Lead, have been bracing for just such an undercount, given the pandemic and the political atmosphere. As Gloshay told High Country News last fall, “The communities that are being undercounted are the same ones being hardest hit by COVID-19.” 

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News. Email us at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor