Montana Atlas

The Income of the One Percent Across the United States (and in Montana)

I was anticipating that yesterday’s post would conclude the current series on county-level maps of the United States, with a focus on Montana, but I came across another fascinating map that cannot be ignored. Posted on the graphics-rich Visual Capitalist webpage, this map shows the average annual income of the top one percent of residents in each U.S. county. The map, however, does have problems; note how much of California’s Bay Area – a place where the elite tend be very wealthy indeed – has been oddly erased.

Most of the patterns evident on this map are not all that surprising. But it is interesting to see the huge variations in the income level of the “one percent” at the county scale. The callouts, which point to the counties with the highest income levels, are useful. Note how the figure found in Teton County, Wyoming – the site of Jackson Hole – dwarfs all others. Many other Wyoming counties also rank quite high, yet Wyoming still has the third lowest level of income inequality in the country (as reflected in its  GINI Coefficient). I have a difficult time understanding why Wyoming, a wealthy state with an abundance of natural beauty, has avoided the recent population surge that has occurred in neighboring Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Montana. In 1980, the state had a mere 469,557 residents; in 2020, the number had increased only to 576,851.

Several other natural-amenity counties in the West are also near the top of the chart, including Summit County, Utah (Park City); Blaine County, Idaho (Sun Valley); and Pitkin County, Colorado (Aspen). (As its Wikipedia article notes, when “measured by mean income of the top 5% of earners, [Pitkin] is the wealthiest U.S. county.) A more surprising listing is Douglas County, Nevada, located just east of the Sierra Nevada crest. Scenic Douglas has seen rapid growth over recent decades, surging from fewer than 7,000 residents in 1970 to almost 50,000 in 2020. Many of its newcomers are wealthy former California residents seeking a low-tax haven.

Quite a few sparsely populated counties fall into the top tiers on this map despite having few natural or culturally amenities. Many are in energy-producing areas, but others are largely agricultural. Across the Great Plains, figures very widely. South Dakota, for example, has several counties in the second-highest tier and several in the lowest. Union County SD, with fewer than 17,000 residents, posts an elevated figure of 4.1 million. Also in the top tier is Minnehaha, two counties to the north. Minnehaha contains booming Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s largest city (population 197,000). Sioux Falls has emerged as an important financial hub, particularly for credit-card companies, owing largely to South Dakota’s relaxed usury laws. South Dakota’s extraordinarily relaxed residency and taxation laws help explain its other centers of wealth. As the South Dakota Residency Center webpage notes:

Unlike many states in the Union, which don’t make being a full-time traveler easy, South Dakota welcomes full-time travelers to its ranks. Here are some of our favorite reasons why South Dakota has become one of the most popular places for travelers to establish residency.

We don’t have state income tax, pension tax, personal property tax, or inheritance tax. 

That’s right, South Dakota is one of the lowest taxed states in the country! When you consider all the different types of taxes, South Dakota comes in well below the average. Plus, you can’t beat the 0% personal income tax.

With only 24 hours of actually being in the state, you can become a resident for at least five years before you’ll need to renew your driver’s license again.

It’s easy to license and register your vehicle.

Not only are our fees for licensing and registration low, but you can also complete your license and registration remotely. That means you don’t have to make a special trip to the state whenever you need to update your registration or register a new vehicle. Plus, you don’t have to undergo yearly vehicle inspections.


Most counties in the upper-interior south post relatively low income levels for their top earners. Although levels are somewhat higher in Kentucky’s storied Bluegrass region, noted for its horse breeding operations, none of its counties make the top tiers. In the Ozarks, one county does rank very high: Benton County, Arkansas, in the extreme northwestern corner of the state. Not coincidentally, Benton is the home of several major corporations: Walmart, JB Hunt Transport Services, Tyson Foods, and Simmons Foods. Unlike the rest of the state, northwestern Arkansas has been booming over the past few decades.

I find the Montana map of high earners quite surprising. The dark blue counties along the state’s eastern border are energy producers, and are thus expected to fall into a high category. But Powder River County is in a very low category even though its GINI Coefficient (see yesterday’s post) is very high and its poverty rate is moderately low. I am not sure how these figures could add up. I also find it mystifying that Gallatin County (Bozeman) would not make the top tier, and would be exceeded by Missoula County. The level of wealth among the rich people of Bozeman – and especially of Big Sky – is staggering. If the map is indeed accurate, I can only conclude that most of Gallatin’s wealthiest property owners maintain their official residences in other states. (South Dakota, perhaps?)

In conclusion to this series, I would like to thank William and Linda Wyckoff, who have been my mentors in the geography of Montana. Invaluable lessons have been given in fieldtrips and brew-pub conversations. Bill’s knowledge of the American West is unparalleled. I strongly recommend all of his books, but would like to draw special attention to How to Read the American West: A Field Guide. As noted on the book’s Amazon page:

From deserts to ghost towns, from national forests to California bungalows, many of the features of the western American landscape are well known to residents and travelers alike. But in How to Read the American West, William Wyckoff introduces readers anew to these familiar landscapes. A geographer and an accomplished photographer, Wyckoff offers a fresh perspective on the natural and human history of the American West and encourages readers to discover that history has shaped the places where people live, work, and visit.

Economic Disparities in Montana (and the Rest of the United States)

Although out-of-date and without a numerical scale, Wikipedia’s map of per capita income in the United States reveals some interesting patterns. As would be expected, income levels are high in major metropolitical areas (particularly in their suburban countries) and across the northeastern corridor extending from southern Maine to central Virginia. Western amenity counties also stand out, particularly Blaine County, Idaho, home of the Sun Valley ski resort. Many energy-producing counties also rank high, as can be seen most clearly in western North Dakota. North Dakota as a whole also ranks high, as does Wyoming. Agricultural counties in the northwestern Midwest tend to have higher per capita income levels than those further to the east; compare, for example, Iowa and Indiana. Low income levels are concentrated in rural counties in the South and in agricultural counties in the West that are home to large numbers of farm workers. Most counties with large Native American reservations also rank low.

The Montana map of per capita income yields some surprises. In 2014, Gallatin County, now the state’s center of wealth, ranked only in the second tier, with several lightly populated rural countries in the southwest and northeast falling in a higher slot. Relatively large payrolls from mining operations help explain some of these seeming discrepancies. The high figure posted for Jefferson County, located to the northwest of Gallatin, may be connected to its Golden Sunlight gold mine. High income levels in northeast Montana might be linked to the oil economy of western North Dakota. Still, to find Daniels County, ranked as the most rural county in the U.S. in 2000, in the top tier is surprising. Low income levels in Montana are concentrated in counties with large American Indian populations. Many rural counties in the Great Plains also rank relatively low. Overall, Montana is characterized by large gaps among its 56 counties.

The maps of median household income are similar to those of per capita income, but with some interesting differences. Much of Utah, for example, ranks higher on the former map than on the latter, reflecting the state’s relatively large families. The oil-rich Permian Basin of west Texas stands out clearly on the national map. In Montana, Stillwater County in the south-center surprisingly falls in the top tier. The Stillwater and East Boulder platinum and palladium mines, with a workforce of almost 3,000, probably plays a major role here. These mining operations are also carried out in neighboring Sweetgrass County, which, as we shall see below, has the state’s lowest poverty rate.

County-level per capita GDP maps are often misleading, as a single facility can make a lightly populated county look wealthier than it actually it. Several high per-capita-GDP rural oddities on the national map reflect productive mining and energy-drilling operations. Eureka Country Nevada, prominent on this map, is the site of the Mt. Hope Molybdenum Project, which contains “one of the world’s biggest and highest-grade molybdenum deposits.” In Montana, Rosebud County, the site of major coal-mining and power-generation operations, stands out. Rosebud does not, however, rank high on per capita income map, mostly because income levels are low on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, mostly located in the county. Surprisingly, many western Montana countries rank quite low on this map, which is partly a reflection of their large number of retirees.


The patterns seen on poverty-rate maps are familiar, requiring little explanation. Montana counties range from the top to the bottom tier. Those with high levels of poverty all have major Native American communities. I was surprised that the poverty rate in Yellowstone County is as low as it is, as Billings has a reputation elsewhere in Montana as a rough town with relatively high crime and poverty rates. Note that in nearby Sweetgrass County the poverty rate falls below five percent



Finally, maps of the GINI Coefficient give a sense of income disparities. On the maps posted here, red coloration indicates relatively small income gaps while purple indicates relatively large ones. (If the GINI coefficient is “0,” all residents have the same income; if it is “1,” one person earns everything.) In the United States as a whole, the highest GINI figures are found in some of the richest states (New York, Connecticut, California) and in some of the poorest (Louisiana, Mississippi), while the lowest figures are found in the Western states of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. The LDS (Mormon) Church runs extensive economic programs for its members, which help account low GINI figures in Utah and Idaho.  County-level maps do not convey these GINI patterns very well, however, mostly because the largest gaps tend to be found in major cities that disappear in the county matrix.

In overall-terms, Montana  falls near the middle on the GINI rankings.It is not surprising that Madison County in southwest Montana has a strikingly high GINI figure. This particularly scenic rural county has been attracting high-income earners for several decades, driving up housing prices and forcing many local people out of the market. Why Powder River County in the southeast would post such a high figure is a bit of a mystery. But with only 1,694 residents, it would not take many high earners to skew the number upwards. On the Wikipedia’s list of notable residents of Powder River, three of the four persons noted gained their fame in rodeo competitions, but it seems unlikely that this would be a major factor in its GINI ranking. Owners of oil and gas leases are probably more important. It is interesting that the sparsely settled counties of eastern Montana post both high and low GINI figures.

Demographic Patterns in Montana (and the Rest of the United States)

This penultimate post on county-level maps of Montana and the rest of the United States examines some basic demographic patterns. We begin with sex ratio, as measured by males per females in the population. The national map shows some clear patterns, but they are not always easy to interpret. Sex ratios are high (more males than females) in the interior West and the northern and western Midwest, and are low (more females than males) across much of the lower south, in most of New England, in most major metropolitan areas, and in many counties with large Native American communities. Some of these patterns can be explained by employment opportunities. It is no surprise, for example, to see male-biased populations in the Bakken oil lands of western North Dakota or in the Permian Basin of west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. If anything, I would have expected higher figures in the latter place. Most outdoor-amenity counties in the West also have high sex ratios.

The map of sex ratios in Montana is especially difficult to interpret. The Blackfeet nation in Glacier County has a very low ratio, but not so the Native American communities of Roosevelt County in northeastern Montana. Gallatin County has a high sex ratio, as might be expected in a booming community with large number of construction jobs, but equally booming Flathead County has a low sex ratio. By the same token, some languishing Great Plains countries have high sex ratios, others low.


On the national map of the population over the age of 65, high levels are seen in counties with large numbers of retirees (parts of Arizona and much of Florida) and in those with declining populations marked by the out-migration of the young. Low levels or elderly people are found in counties with high birth rates and low longevity figures, and in those that attract large numbers of workers. Western counties with many farm workers, such as those in California’s San Joaquin Valley, have low proportions of residents over the retirement age. In Montana, the richest county (Gallatin) has a relatively low number of elderly residents, as do the state’s poor Native American counties. Why Prairie County in the east would have such a large percentage of elderly residents is a mystery. In 2010, its median age was 53.6. If more than 60 percent of its population was really more than 65 years-of-age in 2017, as the map indicates, there must have been some major changes in the intervening period.




The national map of the population under age 18 is in large part a reflection of birth rates. Here the LDS (Mormon) region of Utah and eastern Idaho stand out, as do many areas with large Hispanic populations. In Montana, counties with Native American reservations have high percentages of residents below 18 years-of-age. Western counties that attract retirees or young adult job- and amenity-seekers have relatively few children.

The Geography of Health and Longevity in Montana (and the Rest of the U.S.)

Maps of health and longevity show many of the same patterns seen on earlier maps posted in this GeoCurrents sequence. In the United States as a whole, several county-clusters of relatively low life expectancy stand out. The most prominent is in eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, and southern Ohio, an area mostly inhabited by Euro-Americans. Several areas demographically dominated by African Americans also post low longevity figures, including the southern Mississippi Valley and a few of the large cities that are visible on this county-level map, such as Baltimore and Saint Louis. Almost all counties with large Native American populations also have relatively low figures. Counties with Hispanic majorities, in contrast, generally have average or high levels of longevity, as is clearly visible in southern Texas. Although life expectancy tends to correlate with income, the correlation collapses in many of these areas. Hidalgo County, Texas is over 91 percent Hispanic and has a per capita income of only $12,130, making it “one of the poorest counties in the United States,” but it ranks in the highest longevity category on this map. In Camp County, in northeast Texas, the average life expectancy of white residents is only 74 years, whereas that of Hispanics is 92 years. In most Texas countries, Hispanics outlive whites. Presumably, diet and activity levels are major factors.

Life expectancy varies significantly across Montana, with some counties falling in the highest category and others in the lowest. In Montana, low figures are found in counties with large Native American populations and in the former mining and smelting counties of Silver Bow and Deer Lodge. The relatively wealthier counties of south-central Montana post high longevity figures.

The map of heart-disease deaths in the United States shows some stark geographically patterns. Rates are highest in the south-central part of the country but are also elevated across most of the eastern Midwest. Heart disease death rates tend to be lower in major metropolitan counties as well as in rural countries across much of the West and western Midwest. Many of the patterns seen on this map are difficult to interpret. Why, for example, would heart-disease death rates be much lower in western North Carolina than in eastern Tennessee? (Perhaps the obesity map, posted below, offers a partial explanation, although only by begging the question.) And why would some counties that are demographically dominated by Native Americans have very high rates whereas others, especially those in New Mexico and Arizona, have very low rates? In Montana heart disease tends to be elevated in Native American counties – and in Silver Bow (Butte). South-central Montana has low rates.

On the U.S. cancer death-rate map of 2014, high rates are clearly evident in areas demographically dominated by poor white people (central Appalachia) and poor Black people (the inland delta of the Mississippi in western Mississippi and eastern Arkansas). Low rates tend to be found in the Rocky Mountains, south Florida, and parts of the northern Great Plains. No clear patterns are evident in Montana. Gallatin and Liberty counties fall in the lowest category found in the state, yet have almost nothing in common. The small population of Liberty County, however, makes comparison difficult.



Finally, the patterns seen on the U.S. obesity map are similar to those seen on the preceding maps. The low rates found in the Rocky Mountains, extending from northern New Mexico to northwest Montana, are notable. The northern Great Plains have a higher obesity rate than might be expected based on other health indicators. Some odd juxtapositions are found on this map, with several neighboring counties of similar demographic characteristics posting very different figures. Why, for example, would Pecos County in West Texas have such higher rates than its neighbors? In Montana, it is not surprising that Gallatin County, with its youthful, outdoor focused population, has the lowest obesity rate.

The Geography of Education in Montana (and the Rest of the United States)

Education levels vary widely across the United States, as can be seen on the map to the left. (Unfortunately, this map of high school graduates has an extremely broad lowest category, reducing its utility.) The patterns seen here are relatively simple. Low rates of high-school education are found across the rural southeast, and particularly in Kentucky. Agricultural counties in the West that have large populations of farm workers also have low rates of educational attainment. In contrast, rural counties in the Midwest and Rocky Mountains characterized by ranching and mechanized farming generally have high levels of secondary-school graduates.  Basic educational attainment rates are also high across most of the north, as well as in suburban counties across the county.

Overall, Montana is shown as having a high rate of secondary school completion, but county-level variation is pronounced. Few clear patterns are apparent on the map, and some of the information is curious, such as the lower educational levels found in two small counties (Liberty and Wheatland). Intriguingly, Montana counties with large Native American reservations all fall in middle category.


As is apparent on the third map, the United States is much more geographically differentiated when it comes to college education. Here the north/south divide is less glaring, although still visible. What stands out is the high percentages of bachelor’s degrees in three different geographical categories: affluent urban and suburban countries, especially those associated with tech hubs; non-metropolitan countries with major universities (typified by adjoining Whitman County in eastern Washington and Latah County in northwestern Idaho); and affluent high-amenity rural counties in the West (typified by Pitkin County, Colorado).

Montana’s rates of college completion are relatively high. Even many of the state’s sparsely populated agricultural counties have at least mid-level rates. Gallatin County in the southwest stands out for its elevated figure. Not only is Gallatin the home of Montana State University, but it is also becoming a small tech hub. More recently, it has attracted many well-educated remote workers, as discussed in previous posts.

Patterns similar to those found on the college-completion map are apparent on the map of graduate and professional degrees. A few seeming anomalies, however, stand out. I was perplexed, for example, by the dark green polygon in a remote corner of west Texas: Jeff Davis County (population 1,996). As it turns out, Jeff Davis is the site of the McDonald Observatory, a major scientific institution. Presidio County, just to the southeast, also ranks surprisingly high on this map. The answer to this puzzle is found in the county seat of Marfa, which, despite its small size (1,600), is a “cultural center for contemporary artists and artisans.” In 2012, National Public Radio described Marfa as “An Unlikely Art Oasis in A Desert Town.” (But although it is indeed an “unlikely art oasis,” Marfa is not a “desert town”; receiving over 15 inches of precipitation annually, its climate is distinctly semi-arid.)

Three Montana counties stand out on the map of advanced and professional degrees: Missoula, Gallatin, and Lewis and Clark. The first two are the homes of the state’s two major universities, and the third contains the state capital, Helena.

The Geography of Religion in Montana (and the Rest of the US)

The map of religious adherence in the United States defies some common perceptions. Membership in a religious organization, for example, is shown as higher rate in southern New England than in the eastern part of the so-called Bible Belt. The data used to make these maps, however, are not necessarily accurate, and they do not measure the intensity of religious belief. Religious adherence, moreover, has been declining almost everywhere over the past several decades. But the basic patterns depicted in these maps are still worth examining. As they show, membership in an organized faith is highest in the central part of the country, especially the northern and southern Great Plains, and in the LDS (Mormon) region of Utah and eastern Idaho. It is lowest in central Appalachia and the greater Pacific Northwest, including western Montana.  Colorado, Maine, and the lower peninsula of Michigan also have low rates of membership. In the southeast, religious adherence is low in counties with large Black populations.

Montana is revealed as a religiously divided state. Many counties in the northeastern and north-central parts of the state have very high adherence rates, while many in the west-central and south-central regions have very low rates. Demographic history plays a role here. Northeastern Montana was heavily settled by Norwegian farmers, a group that historically had high rates of (Lutheran) religiosity. In several northeastern counties, Lutheranism is still the dominant faith. Most of the first Euro-American settlers in the rest of Montana were ranchers and miners, groups that generally had low rates of adherence. In the copper counties of Silver Bow (Butte) and Deer Lodge (Anaconda), however, relatively devout Irish Catholic workers later gained demographic domination. These are now the most religious counties in the western part of the state.

Roman Catholicism has been historically mapped as the leading faith over almost all Montana except the northeastern Lutheran belt. More recent maps, however, show Mormonism as the top religion of several western counties. These areas have not historically been mapped as part of the LDS cultural zone. More recently, geographer Paul F. Starrs has remapped the Mormon cultural region to account for its expansion. He now includes southwestern Montana’s Beaverhead Country within its outer sphere. More than 11 percent of Beaverhead’s residents belong to the LDS church. Statewide, the figure is roughly five percent, making it Montana’s second largest faith (after Roman Catholicism). Montana currently has the country’s seventh highest percentage of LDS member – or eighth, if one includes territories (American Samoa).

Cannabis Legalization and the Electoral Geography of Montana

As one of the maps in the previous post shows, cannabis (marijuana) use is higher than average across most of the Western states – with the signal exceptions of Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Not surprisingly, these are the only Western states in which non-medical cannabis use remains illegal. Cannabis legalization began in the West (Colorado and Washington) but is now more firmly instituted in the Northeast. In general, this pattern reflects political inclinations. The Northeast is a generally Democratic-voting region, and Democrats are much more likely to support legalization than Republicans. According to a 2021 Gallup poll, 83 percent of Democrats support legalization, as do 71 percent of independents. Republicans, by contrast, are almost evenly split, with 49 percent opposing legal status.

Only two reliably Republican-voting states have fully legalized cannabis: Montana and Alaska.  It is not coincidental that both are in the West. Western conservatism leans in a more libertarian direction than Southern or Midwestern conservatism, with the important exception of the deeply religious LDS (Mormon) region centered on Utah and eastern Idaho. Although cannabis is now allowed across Montana, sales are prohibited in counties that opposed legalization. These counties can hold their own referendums on retail sale.


Geographical patterns of support for cannabis legalization in Montana are similar to those of the West as a whole. As the paired maps show, Democratic-voting counties all supported the 2020 I-190 Montana Marijuana Legalization and Tax Initiative, whereas the state’s overwhelmingly Republican counties (more than 80 percent Trump vote) opposed it. But several strongly Republican counties (70-80 percent Trump vote) did vote in favor of the initiative, albeit by relatively narrow margins. These counties are concentrated in northwestern Montana. In the east, all strongly Republican counties except Valley voted against legalization.





Differences in religiosity might help explain these patterns. As the Gallup poll also shows, people who regularly attend religious services are less likely to support cannabis legalization than those who do not – although a bare majority of regular attendees (52 percent) still favor legality. As it turns out, western Montana is less religiously inclined than eastern, and especially northeastern, Montana. In the northeast, heavily Republican but cannabis-supporting Valley County is distinctly less religious than its neighbors. But other countries defy this pattern, including deeply religious but legalization-supporting Sheridan County and heavily non-religious but legalization-opposing Carter and Petroleum counties.

Religious affiliation across Montana will be considered in more detail in the next post.

The Geography of Drug Use in Montana – and in the Rest of the United States

The GeoCurrents series on Montana will conclude this week by examining a series of maps of social and economic indicators, both for Montana and the United States as a whole. Many such maps showing county-level data can easily be found for the United States, but far fewer are available for individual states. It is fairly easy, however, to excerpt and magnify a portion of these national maps, and then block out a specific state. If the resolution of the national map is high enough, the derivative state map will be reasonably crisp.

We will begin in today’s post with a brief examination of drug use (including alcohol and tobacco). I will generally assume that the data used to make these maps is reasonably accurate, but that is not always necessarily the case.

The national map of the drug overdose rate (in 2014) shows some clear geographical patterns. The rate is lowest in the agricultural regions of the Midwest and is also relatively low across the inland south and in most major metropolitan areas. The overdose rate is also mapped as low across New York; why this state would have such a lower rate than New England seems odd. Overdose rates are mapped as high in the Appalachian region (and in the upper South more generally), along the Gulf Coast, and across much of the West, including even Utah. Montana has highly variable county rates, which are not easy to explain. The patterns seen here do not correlate well with Montana’s other cultural, economic, or demographic indicators.



The patterns seen in the national map of alcohol use are markedly different from those found on the drug overdose maps. Here Appalachia and the upper South more generally show low rates of use, whereas the upper Midwest – particularly Wisconsin – show high rates. Low reported alcohol use in Appalachia might, however, correlate with high unreported consumption of “moonshine.” Very low drinking rates are unsurprisingly reported for the LDS (“Mormon”) region of Utah and eastern Idaho. Montana, like other northern states, shows generally high levels of alcohol consumption. The Montana-specific map indicates somewhat higher rates of use in the western part of the state. Surprisingly, it indicates low drinking rates in counties dominated by Native American reservations (as does the map of South Dakota). Alcohol sales are often restricted on reservations, but actual use may be higher than the map indicates.




The Mapporn map of “binge and heavy drinking” shows patterns similar to those found on the alcohol-use map. The fact that certain states stand out clearly on this map (West Virginia, Wisconsin) does make me question the underlying data. Montana, like neighboring North Dakota, appears as a binge-heavy state.  On the low-resolution Montana excerpt map, two counties stand out: Missoula and Gallatin, home of the state’s two major universities. I doubt that this is coincidental.






The national tobacco-smoking prevalence map shows high rates in the South and eastern Midwest, and low rates across much of the Northeast and West. Metropolitan countries, particularly suburban ones, have low smoking rates. In Montana, tobacco-use tend to be more prevalent in counties with Native American reservations.






The remaining maps, taken from the website of the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, are based on idiosyncratic “substate regions” rather than counties. As a result, I have not excerpted Montana maps, although I have outlined the state for comparative purposes.

The map of cannabis (marijuana) use shows some sharp and intriguing patterns, particularly in the West. Use is evidently highest the Pacific Northwest (extending through central California), and in Colorado, but low in Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming. Western Montana falls in the same high-use category as the Pacific Northwest. (The issue will be explored in more detail in a separate post on cannabis legalization in Montana.)



The last three maps show some roughly similar patterns. Western Montana has a higher rate of cocaine use than eastern Montana, although not nearly as high as western Colorado. Heroin use is above the national average in the northwestern corner of the state. (The high level of heroin use in Maine and the low levels in Georgia and Texas are curious). Methamphetamine use is fairly high across Montana and is especially elevated in the north-central part of the state. Rural Oregon seems to be the core area of this particularly damaging substance.



If there is a take-home message from these maps, it is that drug use tends to be higher in rural areas than in major metropolitan zones, particularly their suburban counties. This pattern is mostly clearly evident on the methamphetamine map. Many rural areas of the United States are experiencing economic and social distress, which is often associated with heightened drug use.

The Cost of Housing and Essential-Worker Relocation in Booming Southwestern Montana

Casual conversations in Bozeman, Montana often turn to housing. Some verge on the tragic. I have spoken with several young couples who spent years saving for a down payment and were finally on the verge of making an offer – and then Covid hit, remote work intensified, and prices soared. As can be seen on the map, housing prices are high in Gallatin County as a whole, but in central Bozeman they approach the level found in California’s Bay Area. As a result, the city faces a mounting labor crisis, particularly for essential workers such as nurses. According to a confidential source, in a single unit of approximately 30 nurses in Bozeman’s Deaconess Hospital, 12 nurses quit in the past 12 months, with 9 citing housing costs as their reason.

Nurses and other financially stressed residents are abandoning Bozeman for more affordable places. Several nurses have relocated to Spokane, Washington, where wages are higher and housing is cheaper. Most have opted for another Montana city. As can be seen in the paired maps, nurses make more money in Yellowstone County (Billings) than in Gallatin County, and the cost of living is much lower.* Trade-offs, of course, must be factored in. Yellowstone County has a much higher crime rate than Gallatin County, and both its natural and cultural amenities are less appealing.



For those who value natural amenities above all and want to remain in Montana, options are more limited. Most of the scenic valleys of western Montana also have high housing costs. As can be seen on the ArcGIS “housing affordability” map, made just before the Covid price surge, Madison County, with fewer than 10,000 residents, was even less affordable than Gallatin. In such a low-population county, it does not take many affluent amenity seekers to skew the market upwards. Housing is less costly, however, in a few western counties, such as Silver Bow (Butte), Deer Lodge (Anaconda), and Lewis & Clark (Helena).

Anecdotal evidence from casual conversations suggests that the favored destination of priced-out Bozeman residents is Helena. Surrounded by mountains, Helena is nestled in a scenic location, and as the state capital it has a descent array of cultural resources. More important, it is relatively affordable and its crime rate is relatively low.





Another popular relocation place is Anaconda in Deer Lodge County, a former copper-smelting city of some 9,000 people. After a long period of decline, Anaconda is again growing. As an extended headline in a recent article in the Montana Free Press (MTFP) reads, “Building on its past, Anaconda draws new residents seeking best of Montana: The long-struggling southwestern Montana town is gaining popularity with recreationists and homebuyers. Can it retain its historic character?” As the article notes:

Anaconda is the last best place of the last best places,” said Vanessa Romero, 39, who moved to Anaconda in 2017 from Boise, Idaho, and is opening a wine shop downtown.

This isn’t the typical Montana discovery tale. Movie stars aren’t buying sprawling ranches here. Tourists aren’t pouring into town, though they are coming at a steady trickle. The rich and famous aren’t flocking to the local ski area. Rather, Anaconda’s newcomers are often young couples and extended families who want a low-pressure lifestyle in a Montana community but have been priced out of other areas. The town is an example of a historically industrial community that is adapting to a recreation economy. …

We’re seeing the refugees of Missoula and Bozeman” and other rapidly growing towns in the West, said Adam Vauthier, executive director of Discover Anaconda, an economic development organization. “The other recreation towns in the vicinity just got so big.”

But will such cities as Anaconda and Helena retain their affordability?  Footloose and often well-compensated Zoom workers also find them attractive. And prices are increasing. As the Montana Free Press(MTFP) article notes, “the Multiple Listing Service shows a median home price of $294,000 in Anaconda, up 36.7% over the same time in 2021.” Some local residents are also concerned about the city’s changing demographic characteristics. As one resident told MTFP reporter Erin Everett, “’We want to get rid of the buffalo touchers’ … referring to visitors who get too close to bison in Yellowstone National Park.”

*As the paired maps also show, Golden Valley County is an even more advantageous location for nurses, but with only 823 residents, employment opportunities are limited.