BISMARCK — New official population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau confirm what many North Dakotans have known for years: Fargo, Bismarck and the western Oil Patch are growing fast. But as the state's cities swell, rural areas continue to hemorrhage population, further compounding struggles faced by small towns and farming communities.

Driven by booming oil production and a burgeoning tech sector, North Dakota's population growth as recorded by the 2020 Census stood out nationally in several ways.

The Peace Garden State's total population ballooned to 779,094, a nearly 16% jump over the 2010 headcount. North Dakota's growth rate landed it in the top five states in the country and gave it outlier status in the broadly stagnant Midwest.

The population of McKenzie County, which lies in the heart of oil country and includes Watford City, grew by 131% since 2010 — more than any other county in the nation, said Census Bureau Senior Demographer Marc Perry.

Williams County, which includes Williston, ranked second nationally with an 83% population boost. Nearly 70,000 people live in the core of the Oil Patch — McKenzie, Williams, Mountrail and Dunn counties — driven up over the last decade by a massive 74% surge in residents.

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The state's largest metro area got even bigger as Fargo and West Fargo picked up significant gains. Fargo's population expanded to 125,990 inhabitants, a rise of more than 19% from 2010, while West Fargo's population rocketed up by nearly 50% to 38,626. Nearly 24% of the state's population lived in Cass County, according to the 2020 figures.

Some of West Fargo's newer neighborhoods are seen in this aerial photo from Aug. 12, 2020, looking east from a roundabout at  38th Avenue and Ninth Street West.
David Samson / The Forum
Some of West Fargo's newer neighborhoods are seen in this aerial photo from Aug. 12, 2020, looking east from a roundabout at 38th Avenue and Ninth Street West. David Samson / The Forum

Bismarck, the state capital, grew by 20% to 73,622, and across the Missouri River, Mandan swelled to 24,206, a 32% rise. Grand Forks saw 12% growth, with 59,166 people counted in the state's third-biggest city. Minot grew by 18% to 48,377 inhabitants.

Stark County, which includes Dickinson, grew by 39%, while Stutsman County, which encompasses Jamestown, grew by 2%.

However, the rising tide didn't float all boats. Thirty North Dakota counties, most of them rural, lost population in the last decade. The state's population has long been shifting from rural to urban, and the new figures plainly show the consolidation of North Dakotans in a handful of larger cities, said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office.

In 1930, 86% of North Dakota residents recorded by the census lived in rural areas, but "times have changed," Iverson said. Though the state remains one of the nation's most rural, Iverson estimated only about 40% of the population lives outside of the larger metro areas.

Redistricting arithmetic

The new census figures will be used by a committee of state lawmakers to redraw North Dakota's political boundaries by the end of the year. The 14 Republicans and two Democrats on the panel are tasked with dividing the state into legislative districts with roughly equal populations — a difficult task in a time when large rural swaths of the state have few residents.

The full Legislature will need to approve the new districts during a special session in Bismarck.

The legislative map will certainly look different than it did 10 years ago when lawmakers approved the current 47 districts. The continued consolidation of residents around Fargo and Bismarck means the urban areas will likely pick up more representation in the Legislature, said committee vice chairman Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks.

The Oil Patch, until recently one of the state's most sparsely populated regions, will certainly add seats around Williston and Watford City, he added.

Meanwhile, already expansive districts in the rural central and eastern parts of the state will likely be stretched even further according to their shrinking population. The rules are "one person, one vote," so there's no way around moving the district lines to match population shifts, Holmberg said.

"As they say, power to the people," Holmberg said. "That’s what redistricting is … it’s arithmetic."

State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, is shown in this Herald file photo from 2021. (Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald)
State Sen. Ray Holmberg, R-Grand Forks, is shown in this Herald file photo from 2021. (Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald)


Holmberg and fellow committee member Rep. Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, agree there are a few general principles to follow when redistricting: try to separate rural and urban districts, keep counties as whole as possible and don't break up American Indian reservations.

Boschee said the biggest challenge in redistricting will be making rural districts a manageable size.

The Democrat has proposed subdividing each district into two separate House districts, so those running for seats in the lower chamber have fewer constituents and less land to cover. Boschee said Republicans initially dismissed the idea, but some rural conservatives have lately grown more interested.

Holmberg rejected the idea that huge rural districts are untenable, noting South Dakota gets by with fewer and larger legislative districts, and modern technology allows lawmakers to easily communicate with constituents. The committee could propose adding districts to cut down the land area of each one, but Holmberg and Boschee said there hasn't been much traction behind that concept.

North Dakota House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, speaks at a bill signing on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)
North Dakota House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, speaks at a bill signing on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)


Redistricting always brings on internal drama among lawmakers who could end up in districts with other incumbents. Boschee hopes the committee will consider only the optimal way to draw the lines and not where incumbents live, but he realizes there could be gerrymandering to benefit specific lawmakers.

Holmberg, who has worked on redistricting all four times since 1981, said there's unlikely to be much partisan gerrymandering by Republicans against Democrats, but some Republicans could end up in a district with other Republicans because of expanding conservative rural districts.

The committee will hold its next meeting in Bismarck on Aug. 26.