BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — The U.S. Census Bureau is up to the task of accurately counting the exploding population in North Dakota, where armies of job seekers have come to take advantage of the oil-wealthy state's abundant employment opportunities, the agency's director said Tuesday.
Census Bureau Director John Thompson said he's visiting North Dakota this week to get a firsthand look at fastest-growing state in the nation.
"Any time you have a lot of population movement, it's going to be more challenging than when you have a static population," Thompson said at a press conference at the state Capitol in Bismarck. "We're up for those challenges, and one of the reasons we are here is to learn about them."
The government takes a headcount every 10 years and sends census takers to every U.S. household. Accurate counts are crucial for states, because at stake are billions of dollars in federal aid for such things as transportation projects and education. The state's population was pegged at 723,000 residents last July, the most recent date for which figures are available, though some local officials in the state's booming western oil patch have accused the bureau of undercounting the population.
Population numbers are updated using state income tax data between the once-a-decade official counts.
Officials in Williston, the biggest city in the oil patch, had considered contesting the 2010 census that put the city's population at 14,716 people. Williston Mayor Ward Koeser said he and other city officials believed the actual population was about 17,000.
"It's good growth — don't get me wrong," Koeser said at the time. "But we feel we have more (people) than that."
Finding the whereabouts of all North Dakota's burgeoning population will be a chore. Officials have reported new residents living in their vehicles, in tents, under bridges, and in grain bins, haystacks, even culverts.
Thompson said the Census Bureau increasingly is using mapping technology help locate new housing developments and people. And he said the agency still relies on census takers knocking on doors.
The technology "will help us find where people are living, and how we get people there" to count them, Thompson told The Associated Press.
Thompson said North Dakota was the first state he's visited since being appointed by President Barack Obama last year to head the Census Bureau. Thompson met with Gov. Jack Dalrymple on Tuesday and was slated to meet later with American Indian leaders and officials in Williston.
Just a decade ago, North Dakota held the dubious distinction of being the only state to lose population. But its strong economy has attracted thousands of new residents in the past few years, reversing a decades-long trend of outmigration, where more people were going than coming.
Thompson said the agency's last count was accurate.
"I think we got a pretty good count in 2010," he said.
The state's population has surged even since then. Dalrymple said Tuesday that the state has 25,000 unfilled jobs and the nation's lowest unemployment rate, at less than 3 percent.
Many of the workers in the oil patch live in other states, making a headcount difficult, Dalrymple said.
"It seems to people who are in the area that there are more new people than are being talked about or being acknowledged," Dalrymple told reporters. "But you do have this challenge of, 'Who is truly a resident?'"
Kevin Iverson, manager of the census office at the state Commerce Department, said North Dakota did not contest the 2010 census count.
"If anything, it was probably a little conservative," he said of North Dakota's estimated population by the Census Bureau. "Just because people are here doesn't make them residents."