FARGO -- North Dakota's population should continue to grow steadily despite the oil slowdown and could flirt with the 1 million mark by 2040 under a range of new population projections.
The North Dakota Census Office developed a series of population forecasts from 2020 to 2040, released Tuesday, that predict the state's population could range from a conservative estimate of 800,000 in 2020 to a high projection of 1,060,000 by 2040.
The Census Bureau estimated North Dakota's population in 2015 at 756,927, up from 672,591 in the 2010 census.
The state's mid-range, or expected, population forecasts were 824,000 in 2020, 932,000 in 2030 and 992,000 in 2040. Those compared to conservative forecasts of 800,000 in 2020, 879,000 in 2030 and 932,000 in 2040.
The most optimistic projections, assuming the largest influx from people migrating to the state, were 849,000 in 2020, 984,000 in 2030 and 1,060,000 in 2040.
All of the scenarios assume North Dakota, which recently has led the nation in its rate of population growth, will continue to draw people in search of jobs, even with the oil industry no longer booming.
Migration has largely driven the state's rapid population growth in recent years, though natural population growth -- births over deaths -- also is increasing, largely because of the influx of young adults, said Kevin Iverson, manager of the North Dakota Census Office.
Natural growth is expected to peak between 2026 and 2030, then taper off, though remaining positive.
Still, with oil prices down sharply and difficult to predict, Iverson decided to project a range of possibilities, with differing levels of optimism or pessimism.
"I'm guessing our picture down the road is going to be rosier than we see right now," he said. "That said, there is a high level of uncertainty."
North Dakota has more jobs per capita than any other state, offering an employment magnet that should continue to lure people in search of opportunity, Iverson said.
"We still have the highest ratio of jobs to population for any state, by far," he said.
The projections came with a note of caution, noting the volatility of oil prices and agricultural prices, making it difficult to project migration and population trends.
In 2005, shortly before the oil boom in western North Dakota took off, the Census Bureau predicted North Dakota would steadily lose population, which would drop to 606,000 by 2030.
"At this point, these projections look highly unlikely," the new projections report by the North Dakota Census Office said, with wry understatement.
Also, the report noted, there likely will be considerable variation around the state. The Williston area, for instance, had the largest population gains, in percentage terms, in recent years, driven by a huge influx of job-seekers heading to the oil fields.
State demographers expect the combined western economic regions -- Williston, Minot, Dickinson and Bismarck -- to reach a population surpassing the four combined eastern regions, Devils Lake, Grand Forks, Jamestown and Fargo between 2025 and 2030.
That could happen sooner, between 2020 and 2025, under the scenario that assumes high migration. Under a low migration scenario, however, the four western regions would fail to surpass the four eastern regions between 2020 and 2040.
Under any of the projections, the Fargo region in southeastern North Dakota, dominated by Cass County, is expected to continue to see the highest share of the state's population.
Cass County, with a population estimated at 171,588 in 2015, could increase to 188,810 in 2020, 214,719 in 2030 and 228,895 in 2040 under the expected migration scenario.
The Bismarck region, led by Burleigh and Morton counties, will continue as the second most populous region, though Ward County is expected to overtake Grand Forks County as the third most populous under all but the low-migration scenario.