Continental Divides

Anybody Here from Montana?

It’s reached a point where the weathered cowboy standing next to you in the Murdoch’s line probably isn’t even from here

By John McCaslin

It’s like Christmas morning when the new edition of The Almanac of American Politics arrives in my mailbox, thicker than a bible and packed with profiles of U.S. lawmakers and governors, district maps and redistricting changes, voting records and updated demographics.

For political junkies, there’s not a more comprehensive compendium of officialdom, painstakingly compiled every year since 1972 by the National Journal.

First, it should come as no surprise that in describing our 41ststate the 2024 almanac’s opening sentence begins with four words: “Montana’s rapid population growth.”

“Montana prides itself as ‘The Last Best Place,’ and in waves, Americans have agreed,” the 2,123-page volume observes. “The state’s natural beauty and open spaces have drawn a steady stream of newcomers, boosted by advances in remote working that were supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic.”

Population growth, it continues, has been “especially rapid” in Montana’s western counties like Flathead, “which includes Kalispell and much of Glacier National Park.”

That said, whereas Flathead County in 2023 welcomed more new residents (some 1,800) than any of Montana’s 55 other counties, the 1.6 percent growth rate is finally back in line with pre-Covid norms. Consider nearly 10,000 newcomers flooded the Flathead from the spring of 2020 through the first half of 2022.

“Over the past quarter-century, Big Sky Country attracted at first a trickle and then a flood of affluent Americans,” the almanac explains, “high-visibility movie stars and billionaires … but also ordinary people buying small spreads … around Flathead Lake … and Whitefish.”

For what it’s worth, my non-scientific survey of license plates conducted outside the Kalispell DMV while waiting for my number to be called finds most migrants arriving from Washington, Colorado, Texas and California – the latter two states especially.

“More people from San Francisco moved to Montana than to any other state during the pandemic,” the almanac confirms, citing a California Policy Lab study. Which helps explain Bozeman’s breakneck evolution from cowtown to “Boz Angeles.”

It’s reached a point where the weathered cowboy standing next to you in the Murdoch’s line probably isn’t even from Montana.

“Now, less than half of [Montana] residents 25 or older are native to the state,” the almanac observes.

Meanwhile, the weighty volume draws much-needed attention to less-popular pockets of our state, where older Montanans are being “left behind” by younger generations.

The almanac calls it “aging in place,” revealing that Montana is now “the ‘oldest’ state in the Lower 48 that lies west of the Mississippi, and the median age is especially high in rural areas, where retirements of small business owners can be especially damaging if no one is willing to take over.”

Perhaps I observed this during a visit last August to Glasgow, where my mother graduated high school (go Scotties!) in 1944. Several shuttered businesses fronted eerily empty streets and sidewalks, the city’s popular but telling slogan, “The Middle of Nowhere,” painted on the side of one building.

Of course we’re facing the opposite conundrum here in the Flathead, where aforementioned newcomers have “pushed up housing prices beyond the reach of many. In such hot real estate markets, homelessness has spiked, and rising costs have exacerbated the class divide,” the almanac points out.

Turning to politics, the existence of Republican “supermajorities” in both of Helena’s chambers – aided in 2022 “by the Democrats’ inability to field a candidate in some three dozen districts” – doesn’t mean Montana isn’t seeing “some flashes of its more moderate past.”

Case in point, the backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, when Montana voters rejected a legislative referendum that would have “prosecuted” medical providers from the Flathead to Fairview “who do not take actions to preserve the life of babies ‘born alive’ after an attempted abortion.”

Skimming along, the almanac finds worthy of mention Montana’s “lively political arguments over grizzly bears,” expansion of “bison grazing” on federal lands, substantial coal reserves facing “increasing difficulties,” additional harnessing of “abundant renewable energy resources,” and wind farm development.

Finally, if you haven’t noticed, Montana is predominantly white: 86 percent, ranking fifth in the nation. Less than 1 percent of its residents are black, while 2 percent are foreign born.

Native Americans remain the state’s largest minority group, 6 percent give or take, but judging from Montana’s immigration trends that probably won’t be the case much longer.

“The Hispanic population has climbed fairly quickly,” the almanac notes, certainly surpassing the 41,501 Hispanics counted in Montana in 2020.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.