Casper experienced the largest population drop in Wyoming during last year’s energy bust, losing nearly 1,000 residents, new figures show.
The city, a hub for the oil and gas fields, lost about 1.6 percent of its population. At the same time, two nearby communities — Mills and Evansville — experienced small increases.
In total, Wyoming’s population fell by 1,054 residents in 2016, the first year more people moved out of the Cowboy State than moved in since 1990, the tail end of a depression that drained the state’s workforce.
The population decline is linked to the energy downturn. The three key industries that prop up the state’s labor force and economy have been in decline. Oil, natural gas and coal suffered from falling prices, and though some say the state has reached the bottom of the drop, prices have not strengthened significantly for oil or gas. Meanwhile, coal continues to struggle because of the cheap price of natural gas.
The figures show that the state’s metropolitan area, Cheyenne, gained the largest number of people in 2016. The capital city grew by 1 percent, or 615 people. It’s likely that some of the workers who lost jobs in other areas of the state moved to Cheyenne during the bust, said Wenlin Liu, chief economist for the state.
Cheyenne, with its proximity to Colorado and high number of government jobs, was relatively immune to the economic downturn, Liu said.
Neighboring states like Montana and Idaho likely stole some of Wyoming’s labor force as well, as their economies have strengthened even as Wyoming fell into decline, he said.
In total, nine cities and towns declined in population across the state, with regions of mineral extraction hit the hardest, including Gillette, Green River and Bar Nunn — which had been one of the fastest growing towns in the state since 2010.
For cities with populations of 2,000 or more, only Cheyenne and Kemmerer experienced growth.
The ebb and flow of residents in Wyoming takes place every year, but since 1990, there have always been more people coming than going, said Liu, the state economist.
Though the downturn in extractive industries has been significant, it hasn’t had the same affect as the dramatic population changes of the 1980s, when the state experienced a net loss between 2 and 4 percent on a yearly basis, he said. The state had a very slow recovery rate extending throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, when coal-bed methane started another boom, he said.
Jobs are, however, finally returning to the Cowboy state. Oil and gas jobs hit 10,900 in April, the first year over year increase since January of 2015, according to Wyoming Insight, a monthly summary of economic changes in the state, released Wednesday by Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division. Applications to drill for oil have also increased since this time last year, by nearly 1,000.
There’s been a slow climb in mining activity as well, revealed in an increase in sales and use taxes from the sector, said Jim Robinson, a state economist.
The state’s rig count hit 25 this week, up from seven a year ago at this time.