Why do so few people live in Wyoming?
April 18, 2016 6:47 PM   Subscribe

WY do so few people live in the state north of Colorado? It is the least populous state in the nation and almost all its neighbors have twice the population. What accounts for such a large difference?
posted by Monochrome to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I wondered the same thing when I moved to Colorado. Wyoming is barren and windy. Being a bit higher than Colorado, on average, makes a lot of difference.
posted by lukemeister at 6:54 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

My guesses (somewhat confirmed by doing some googling):

- harsh climate
- large sections owned by the U.S. Government or energy companies
- water is pretty scarce

Admittedly some of the surrounding states share some of those traits and have populations that look a lot larger, but the numbers are so small that you could double the population and still not have much. For example, N & S Dakota each have about 250-300,000 more people than Wyoming, which has about 500,000 people. But to put that in perspective, the population of the Birmingham, AL metro area (that is, including the suburbs) is about as much as any 2 of those states put together.
posted by randomkeystrike at 6:57 PM on April 18, 2016 [3 favorites]

Ever been? There are exception areas, of course, but it's gorram dry, windy, and desolate.

It's exactly the type of place someone like Dick Cheney would be from.
posted by notsnot at 6:58 PM on April 18, 2016 [26 favorites]

Are you asking why no where lives there now? Or why no one settled there to build it out in the past?

Now: Well, there's nothing there. That's not snarky. There just really isn't. I routinely had people drive HOURS to Billings, MT from all over Wyoming just to go to the mall.

Past: As to why there's nothing there you'd have to do more digging than my rudimentary understanding. But I'm from Montana, which became populated due to mining and agriculture in the past, or of course Native American populations. Now people are moving more to Billings because of the low cost of living and it's a growing city.

But since Wyoming - as far as I know - doesn't have much of an industry that would drive people there. A good portion of the state is also covered in mountains - which you can't settle, farm on, on or make roads on easily.

I'm sure there are people with much more knowledge than me but really, there's just nothing there and not much of a reason for people to want to build it up when there are better locations with more structure to start with in nearby areas.
posted by Crystalinne at 6:59 PM on April 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

BTW, if you're interested in Wyoming, as well as maybe getting some fictionalized ideas of the challenges of living there, this show may be of interest on Netflix.
posted by randomkeystrike at 7:03 PM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

Some ideas:

1. No major cities. Populous states usually have major population centers. For example New York City in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco in California, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Chicago in Illinois, etc. Even looking at Wyoming's region of the country, neighboring states with significantly larger populations have major population centers like Salt Lake City and Denver.

2. Population centers in other states are relatively close to the Wyoming border. This could potentially create a bit of a population vacuum in (southern?) Wyoming, since there would be little reason for people to flock to any particular place in Wyoming when there are two major US cities relatively nearby.

3. History. Wyoming was one of the last of the lower 48 states to get statehood, and the inland Northwest was one of the last regions of the US to be settled by white Americans. It also doesn't have a very long history of colonization by immigrant settlers, like most of more populous parts of the US do. It's also worth noting that Wyoming wasn't organized as a territory until 1865, and the railroad didn't arrive until 1867. Which makes barely 150 years that American settlers could even reach Wyoming easily. (For certain values of "easily".) Also, IIRC the pattern of settlement by whites in the 19th century moved inland from the coasts, and was spurred by people looking for good farmland. Which leads to:

4. Geography. A lot of Wyoming is mountainous, and thus not desirable by the types of Americans who were settling that part of the world around the time Wyoming opened up to American settlement.

5. Economics: the biggest sector of the Wyoming economy today is tourism, fueled by the national parks. Which couldn't exist if Wyoming were densely settled. In other words, there isn't a real impetus for people to move to Wyoming, even nowadays when the economy in general is no longer agrarian. There's no reason there *couldn't* be a major tech or media fueled city, built with modern development techniques, that was the envy of the region, but with nothing to inspire or fund such a place, it continues to not exist.

Along with the History/Geography/Economics aspects of this, I'm also wondering if settlement in the region wasn't tied to specific railroad lines. The Union Pacific Railroad would have connected Cheyenne, Denver, and Salt Lake City, which could either have been a vector for people to arrive in or depart from Wyoming depending on what other cities in the area had to offer. A rail line limited to the southern part of the state might have made settling in the northern parts of the state less attractive than settling in Utah, Idaho, or Colorado. But this is all speculative, since I'm no expert on railroads in Mountain West and Great Plains states.
posted by Sara C. at 7:16 PM on April 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

48.2% of the state belongs to the Federal Government. And it's mostly the best parts, like the area around Yellowstone.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:22 PM on April 18, 2016 [9 favorites]

Here's a PDF showing where all the federal land is in the state.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:25 PM on April 18, 2016 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 5th or 4th generation (depending on how one counts it) Wyoming native here.

This is actually a very complicated question with many reasons but I can touch on a few. The number one reason is lack of water; the second reason is the wax and wane of state population from energy boom and busts.

The big basins that make up the majority of the livable portions of the state - Bighorn/Wind, Powder, Hanna-Shirley, Green River, and Platte - are extremely dry: some places less than 12 inches of precip/year, which makes it difficult to raise crops except along the rivers. As a result, most of the agriculture in the past was characterized by cattle and sheep, which need more land. A LOT more land. Attempts to bring in smaller ag in those basins also created a great deal of tension, which resulted in power conflicts like the Johnson County War. Less small ag=less people. But more than that - to build a community you need reliable - and that's a key word - sources of water.

Fossil fuels and other mineral mining such as uranium, benonite, and trona tend to create mad energy booms that raise the population levels and then deplete them again once they bust - population centers like Casper (in the middle of the state) and Gillette have been created that way and have grown large enough to sustain themselves.

Now, of course, there is also a great deal of government land - more than 50% due to state and federal land - which creates one of its biggest industries - tourism and "retirement" communities (i.e. retirees moving into places like the Jackson, Cody, and Sheridan areas). Unfortunately a tourism/retiree based economy does not lend itself to opportunity as it's mostly service based. There's a more complicated story in land ownership concerning mines and railroads which I won't go into, but that's part of it.

If you would like to read more about the economics of Wyoming's past and the modern history which have contributed to its population, I highly recommend the very short book, Pushed Off the Mountain, Sold Down the River, by Sam Western, and Lawson's History of Wyoming. Western's book in particular goes into how the agrarian attitudes have forced a push against some of the more industrial/entrepreneurial/higher ed opportunities which could create more economic opportunities.

FWIW, I did not consider Wyoming a crappy place to live. I would move back there in a heartbeat if I could find a job there, which has more to do with contemporary attitudes than anything else. I love the barren plains, the wind, and the full views. It has a stark beauty in which I find much solace and joy.

(PS Dick Cheney was born in Nebraska before he moved to WY. And characterizing an entire state by one person is not really cool.)
posted by barchan at 7:30 PM on April 18, 2016 [136 favorites]

Best answer: The big basins that make up the majority of the livable portions of the state - Bighorn/Wind, Powder, Hanna-Shirley, Green River, and Platte - are extremely dry: some places less than 12 inches of precip/year, which makes it difficult to raise crops except along the rivers.

To support this: take a look at a precipitation map of the Western U.S. Wyoming is noticeably drier than any of its neighboring states, with the possible exception of Utah.
posted by Johnny Assay at 7:30 PM on April 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Wyoming was one of the last of the lower 48 states to get statehood, and the inland Northwest was one of the last regions of the US to be settled by white Americans. It also doesn't have a very long history of colonization by immigrant settlers, like most of more populous parts of the US do. It's also worth noting that Wyoming wasn't organized as a territory until 1865, and the railroad didn't arrive until 1867. Which makes barely 150 years that American settlers could even reach Wyoming easily.

Well, yes and no. The Oregon Trail runs right across Wyoming and was primarily active from the 1830s until the transcontinental railroad was completed, but apparently very few people thought Wyoming was nice enough to stop in. It's west of the 100th meridian, which is fairly significant for agriculture.

As far as government land ownership, I'd be pretty surprised if quite a bit of that land wasn't up for grabs under the Homestead Act or something similar, but nobody wanted it.
posted by LionIndex at 7:33 PM on April 18, 2016 [4 favorites]

I forgot to mention that even in places with water, in many places much of the water is alkaline, which can cause lots of problems for people and stock. That's why you have an entire county named Sweetwater, to celebrate some spot within it that had good water.
posted by barchan at 7:39 PM on April 18, 2016 [7 favorites]

Water rights are a big deal in that part of the country. You can't just park yourself next to the Platte River and start pumping water out of it, because the water already belongs to people downstream from you. Doing that during the wild-and-wooly years could get you killed. These days it'll land you in court.

Not to mention what the EPA will do to you. And the Fish and Wildlife Service.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:40 PM on April 18, 2016

Wyoming has basically no topsoil anywhere ... It's all bedrock right at the surface. Fantastic for geologists, shitty for farmers, which is a problem when you're a rural state.

I too suspect railroad patterns had something to do with it, although I expect the railroads weren't there because the settlers weren't there because the soil wasn't there.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:17 PM on April 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

There's often an assumption that all of the lower 48 is "filled in" because there are no gaps in the map, when that's not really the case. In a way, the question ought to be "why do so many people live in Wyoming?", and barchan has answered that well: energy booms that create settlements that endure beyond the boom, and tourism/retirement service economies built out of the state's remoteness that have both a floor and a ceiling.
posted by holgate at 10:22 PM on April 18, 2016

No one has explicitly mentioned this, so: Wyoming produces a lot of coal. The deposits there are immense and they're close enough to the surface to strip mine. The Black Thunder Coal Mine alone produces 70-80 million metric tonnes of coal per year.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:31 PM on April 18, 2016

Best answer: I think also the West is quite thinly settled in general, and some accidents of line-drawing make Wyoming look like more of an outlier than it really is. Nevada is another dry-as-hell state that's largely owned by the government but it's got 2.9m residents, which seems like quite a lot more than Wyoming, but roughly 2m of them live in the Las Vegas area, and that's essentially a giant insane Federal experiment to temporarily make that patch of desert inhabitable. Utah has around 3 million people, but 80% of them live in the little 120-mile-long, five-mile-wide stretch that drains the water out of the mountains (so 80% of the population is crammed into 600 of Utah's 85,000 square miles). The other states are certainly more populous, but one way to look at it is that the West is thinly peopled almost everywhere, and there are a handful of tiny patches of population density, and none of those places happened to fall in Wyoming.

The West, in general, is not suitable for permanent human settlement without mind-bogglingly massive civil engineering projects. The native people that lived here before the whites either (1) moved with the seasons or (2) died out because of water problems. So the Dry West basically has patches where enormous amounts of energy were expended by some combination of the Federal government or the Mormons to make the desert "survivable" for some period of time. Utah was first, thanks to Mormon settlement. Tons of money was spent to make Southern California livable, because of the influence of powerful landowners, mainly.

The whole American mythology of homesteaders and smallholders scratching out a living on 160 acre farms and knitting together the institutions of small towns doesn't really work west of the 100th Meridian, save for the coastal Northwest. it's too dry. I personally think this is kind of funny given that the people who live in the rural West are generally the most extreme, conservative, "fuck everyone, I'm a wild independent cowboy making my way out here on my own!" and their lifestyle is 100% totally dependent on massive amounts of Federal spending that is not remotely close to recouped by the taxation on the economic output of their states. Cowboys, ranchers, all those guys are welfare princes.

I think, generally, it might make more sense not to ask "why do so few people live in Wyoming?" but "how in hell do so many people manage to survive in Utah, the Dakotas, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, California, New Mexico, Idaho, Montana, and the east-of-the mountains stretches of Washington and Oregon?" The short answer is "dams". Everything in the West comes back to water.
posted by jeb at 11:43 PM on April 18, 2016 [63 favorites]

I grew up in Wyoming. It's a terrible shithole. Winters are long, bitterly cold, and windy. The landscape is for the most part extremely barren and difficult to traverse in the winter. There's nothing to do, not much in the way of culture, few job opportunities outside of government work especially for college educated people, it's 95% blue-collar backwards white people who are afraid of people different from them, etc etc. It's a shithole.
posted by a strong female character at 3:44 AM on April 19, 2016 [4 favorites]

Just on a density basis, look how little populated Western Colorado is. Hell for Eastern Colorado, if you factor out the Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins, and Colorado Springs you'll see it is pretty empty as well. It is no surprise that all of these cities are right along the foothills of the Rockies where there is a good water supply. If you've ever landed at Denver's airport which is a ways Northeast of city you'll find that it is in a flat, barren wasteland. Imagine hundreds and thousands of square miles of that.
posted by mmascolino at 6:36 AM on April 19, 2016 [2 favorites]

I lived in Wyoming for exactly 372 days. It was all I could take. I lived in Laramie, which is 45 minutes north of Fort Collins, CO...and a universe away.

1. The winter I spent in Wyoming was the harshest I have ever experienced. I am not a winter wimp, I grew up in Minnesota. But this was unlike any winter I'd ever dealt with before: the wind never stopped blowing. A constant 30 mph wind, and the snowflakes were not light fluffy snowflakes, they were razor sharp shards of ice. Razor sharp shards of ice being flung at my face at 30 mph.

2. It's beautiful in a desolate sort of way. But after a while I became used to it and it was more of an "eh" than an "ah!". Deserts are beautiful but they're so far away from everything else.

3. The people I met were initially friendly but after a while I realized that, if I lived in Wyoming for the rest of my life, I would always be from "back east". This was a tight-knit community and I would always be an outsider.

4. I was one of 4,625 people in the entire state of Wyoming to vote for Nader in the 2000 election. I'm pretty sure I knew all of those people within 2 degrees of separation. Wyoming, even in a college town like Laramie, is a verrrrry verrrrry conservative place. I had a shotgun pulled on me by my friends neighbor when I made a disparaging comment about GWBush. I don't think it was a joke.

Then one day I realized that I could move 45 minutes south and live in Fort Collins. A lush, liberal little haven just over the border. I said "why the fuck not" and schlepped myself to the land of Milk and Honey. When I needed a Desolation Vacation I could just drive up 287 through Owl Canyon and boom, Wyoming.

One nice thing about Wyoming: there didn't seem to be enough people in any particular counter-culture to maintain a circle of their own, so all of the goths, hippies, anarchists, pagans, gearheads and greasers, ravers, GLBT folks, people of color, emo kids, etc all kind of hung out together. That was unusual and kind of novel and I've never experienced that anywhere else, even when living in smaller towns in other states.
posted by Elly Vortex at 6:44 AM on April 19, 2016 [18 favorites]

Best answer: Hey Chocolate Pickle, the mines bring in a lot of jobs and are responsible for people living in the Powder River and Green - Hanna basins, so they are a reason why people live there, not the other way around.

I also remembered this as I went to bed - unlike other western states like Colorado, Nevada, and Montana, although Wyoming flirted with it around South Pass City, it never had the big true booms with metals like gold, silver, and copper like what happened in the mineral belt in Colorado or Virginia City, MT - and of course the Black Hills rush happened in South Dakota. For example, though sparsely populated now, at one time Leadville, CO, was big enough to warrant consideration for the state capital; a lot of Leadville silver went into helping create Denver.
posted by barchan at 7:09 AM on April 19, 2016

I asked someone from Wyoming, and they said, "Well, they call it God's country because no one else wants it."

Also the winters are INTENSE. I do not enjoy, nor do I know many people who do, having snow blown so hard at your face that it feels like you are being sandblasted.
posted by ananci at 2:30 PM on April 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for your responses! I was familiar with the dry, empty West. I wanted to know what made Wyoming more so.
posted by Monochrome at 5:48 PM on April 19, 2016

Southern CO native here. Whole nuclear family lives in the Red Desert of Wyoming. I lasted about a year and a half.

I'll tell you why I left, and it's pretty much the same reasons as Elly Vortex. Once you get north of the Laramie grasslands, Southern/central WY is just incredibly harsh and pretty visually unappealing. Windy as hell, all year round, dry as hell, looks like the damn moon. People tried to settle there, over and over again, and there are abandoned farmsteads and encampments desiccating away out in the bush as testaments to their failure. Things just die there. In 20 years I have never gone on a summer hike in WY without finding multiple cattle corpses. This is a climate where ELK die of exposure.

I have grown to appreciate my yearly trips out there in the early fall. There is beauty here, if a little stark. It's amazing to be able to drive 5 miles out of a town that's actually on the interstate and be smack dab in the middle of territory few living people in town have ever seen. And there are actually still resource extraction jobs, so if you're willing to deal with the weather you can make a decent living.

But most people just can't deal. The permanent population of my family's town, which has jobs and is connected to both the interstate and major train lines, hasn't changed by more than a couple thousand people in 20 years.
posted by aspersioncast at 1:19 PM on April 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

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