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America's Northern Plains

An Overview and Assessment of Natural Resources



The region's population in 1994 was estimated at 10.5 million people. about 4% of the U.S. population. Fifty-nine percent of the region's population resides in the two southernmost states, Colorado and Kansas. Colorado's population has nearly doubled since 1960, while other states have shown relatively slow growth.

The region's population is primarily white (86%), followed by Hispanics (6%) and Blacks (3%). The region also is the home of approximately 196,000 American Indians, who manage and own nearly 16 million acres of land-- almost 28% of the Indian lands in the U.S. and about 4% of the Northern Plains. According to the 1990 Census, the region's American Indian population has grown 29% since 1980.

Settlement Changes

Many counties in the Northern Plains region reached their greatest population in the 1890s. During the last century, many rural areas and towns under 10,000 lost population to regional towns. Many small counties have reached the crisis point of sharing local and county government in regional complexes. Rural county economies and governments are becoming unsustainable in much of the drier High Plains.

Figure 16 shows the population density pattern of the region in 1986. Outmigration in western North and South Dakota and eastern Montana is expected, where regional centers fail to develop, into the next century.

GIF-population density of the Northern Plains
Figure 16. Population density in the Northern Plains (U.S. Dept. of Commerce, 1993).

In the 1980s, while the remote counties lost their sustainable population levels, population in the regional centers grew. Tourism in the mountain areas became a larger economic sector than agriculture. The mountain areas also gained population from retirees, which translates into land ownership of smaller parcels, changing land use, and higher land values.

Per Capita Income

The economy of the Northern Plains, like the population, is highly localized into metropolitan regions. Denver's population and economy are far greater than those of rural Colorado, the western Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. The per capita income on a county basis (Figure 17) is more evenly concentrated than the population density (Figure 16).

GIF-Northern Plains per capita income by county
Figure 17. Northern Plains per capita income by county. The US average income was $18,696 in 1990 (U.S. Dept of Commerce, 1994).

Most areas of the region have low per capita incomes, but the region includes both the richest and the poorest counties in the country. Denver makes Colorado the only state in the region with a per capita income higher than the national average. During good years, a few thinly populated farm counties have some of the highest per capita incomes in the country. The counties with American Indian reservations have the lowest per capita incomes in the country.

Agricultural Systems

Nine distinct agricultural systems operate in the Northern Plains region. Sommers and Hines (1991) applied cluster analysis to the Census of Agriculture, defining 12 clusters that reveal patterns of agricultural production and diversity for the United States. The cattle-wheat-sorghum cluster comprised 49% of the Northern Plains region.

Market output per county follows the precipitation patterns of the region. The eastern border counties share the highly productive systems of the Corn Belt and Red River Valley, and this farming pattern needs more labor and inputs per acre. The larger towns in these counties also are large enough to generate small industrial and commercial growth.

The basic farm size increases east to west along the decreasing precipitation gradient. Westward, agriculture changes to a flexible, mixed cropping rotation, then to winter wheat/fallow, and finally to grazing, requiring less labor and inputs per acre than the more humid east.

Farming Charges

Farms in the Northern Plains region are undergoing major changes in the 1990s, particularly with changes in conservation programs and culture.

Wheat acreages and production are expected to increase through the 1990s, at the expense of grass and hay acreage. The corn/soybean belt is expanding. The increasing number of irrigated acres, such as those in Nebraska, are going into corn production, with soybeans as the rotational crop. This increase in irrigated corn production correlates strongly with increases in fertilizer and herbicide use.

Farms in the region are huge and getting larger, while the number of farms and ranches in the region is slowly decreasing. Between 1982 and 1992, the NRI (1994) showed a 10% decrease, from 266,679 to 240,070 farms. Larger feedlots also are replacing diversified farming operations.

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