Society

Least Densely Populated U.S. States

Based on 2016 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 7 U.S. states have 20 or fewer residents per square mile.

Population density is calculated by dividing the population size by the total land area. This calculation is expressed as the number of people per square mile. The global population density (based on land area, not including bodies of water) is 120 people per square mile. In the United States, some states exceed that number, and other come far below. This list takes a look at the states with the lowest population density.

Least Densely Populated States

Alaska

Alaska is by far the least densely populated of the US states and has 1.3 persons per square mile. The demographics of the state reflect 64.1% as non-Hispanic white and 14.8% as Native American. During the gold rush of the 1890’s, thousands of immigrants went to Alaska hoping to strike wealth which significantly increased the number of people living there. Half of the current population lives in the Anchorage metropolitan area. The state has such a low population density because it is both immense and located far north, not connected to the mainland. A large portion of the state is covered in ice and snow creating difficult living conditions, and therefore no urban developments have emerged. The economy today relies on the oil and gas industry.

Wyoming

The second least densely populated state is Wyoming with six people per square mile. This state is a large state with a small population, and the most important economic activities include cattle ranching, coal mining, and tourism. A large portion of the land is either covered in mountains or designated as nationally protected (National parks and monuments for example) and therefore cannot be inhabited by humans.

Montana

Montana, Wyoming’s neighbor to the north, has a population density of 7.1 people per square mile. Historically, Montana was settled by homesteaders on large tracts of land that were divided among families. This population spread contributes to the low density of people here as well as the main economic activity, agriculture. Huge swaths of land are needed to cultivate cereal grain and raise cattle. The areas not covered by ranches are covered in mountains.

North Dakota

Bordered by Montana, North Dakota is the 4th least densely populated with 11 people living in every square mile. Prior to the arrival of the European settlers, this land was largely inhabited by Native Americans. It was the railroad construction that brought settlers to North Dakota. The majority of this state is covered in wheat farms that are protected by anti-corporate laws that prohibit banks from owning the title to farmland. These laws effectively make foreclosure illegal. Previously, the state experienced a decline in population as many young people left to look for employment opportunities. Today, however, the economy has stabilized and enjoys a low unemployment rate which has attracted more residents to the area.

South Dakota

South Dakota is similar to North Dakota in population density with just slightly more people per square mile, 11.3. The majority of the population is found east of the Missouri River where the economy is based on crop cultivation. West of the river, the land is largely dedicated to cattle ranching. The racial composition of the state is as follows: 83.8% non-Hispanic white, 8.8% Native American, 1.2% African-American, and 0.9% Asian American.

New Mexico

New Mexico has a population density of 17.2 people per square mile. Only 51.4% of the people living here were born in the state, and the rest are immigrants from other states, territories, or countries. The economy revolves around the oil and gas industry as well as tourism and federal spending. The population density is low for many reasons. Partly because of a lack of employment opportunities and partly because the federal government owns a lot of the land. There are 3 Air Force bases, a missile testing range, and an Army fort.

Idaho

Population density in Idaho is 20 people per square mile. Heavily populated by Native Americans before colonization, Idaho became attractive to European settlers in the early 1800’s when it became a western territory and more so during the Gold Rush. Today, the economy is based on lumber and agriculture (particularly potato farming). The population is composed of 89% non-Hispanic whites, 1.4% Native American, 1.2% Asian-American, and .6% African American. The most commonly practiced religion is Mormonism.

Nebraska

Number 8 on the list is Nebraska with 24.7 people per square mile. As with the other sparsely populated states, the majority of the land is dedicated to corn and soybean crops as well as livestock grazing. The racial makeup is 86.1% non-Hispanic white, 4.5% African-American, 1.8% Asian-American, and 1% Native American. The most widely practiced religion is Catholicism as 28% of the population reports. Omaha City is the most heavily populated area with over 700,000 people. It is this large city that increases the population density.

Nevada

Nevada has 26.3 people per square mile. This state has such a low population density due to its geography. A significant portion is covered by the Mojave Desert, which meant the land was not appealing to homesteaders during the westward expansion movement. As a result, the federal government owns 80% of the state; about 1,350 square miles of which are designated as nuclear testing grounds The people who do live here are concentrated in Las Vegas.

Kansas

The last state on the list is Kansas with 35.6 people per square mile. The majority of land area here is covered by crops like wheat, corn, and soybeans. In addition, the National Park Service has designated ten protected parks and memorials which prohibit people from settling there. The population has seen a slight increase over the last decade as well as a movement from rural to urban areas.

Reasons for Low Population Density

As noted in the above list, when an area is dedicated to agricultural production, it tends to have a low population density. Harsh environments like high mountains and arid deserts also deter human settlements. This fact is true of land use designations and historical land ownership policies as well.

Least Densely Populated U.S. States

RankStatePeople Per Square Mile
1Alaska1.3
2Wyoming6.0
3Montana7.1
4North Dakota11.0
5South Dakota11.3
6New Mexico17.2
7Idaho20.0
8Nebraska24.7
9Nevada26.3
10Kansas35.6

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