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Census 2020: 33 Rural SD Counties Lose 4,871 People; 6 Town Counties Add 65,593

According to the 2020 population data released by the United States Census Bureau Thursday, the last decade saw exactly half of South Dakota’s counties gain population and exactly half lose population:

"Percent Change in Population for South Dakota Counties: 2010–2020," United States Census Bureau, 2021.08.12.
Percent Change in Population for South Dakota Counties: 2010–2020,” United States Census Bureau, 2021.08.12.
"Numeric Change in Population for South Dakota Counties: 2010–2020," United States Census Bureau, 2021.08.12.
Numeric Change in Population for South Dakota Counties: 2010–2020,” United States Census Bureau, 2021.08.12.

South Dakota’s even split between counties gaining people and counties losing people is a little better than the national split: 47% of counties in the United States grew in population over the last decade.

The 33 counties that lost population—mostly in the middle, with an arm of shrinkage reaching out interestingly east through every county on Highway 34—counted 4,871 people in 2020 than in 2010. Our three largest counties and the three biggest gainers numerically—Minnehaha, Pennington, and Lincoln—each added many more people than the loss from those 33 counties. The 33 growing counties added 77,358 people, almost sixteen times the loss from the shrinking half of the state.

Six counties accounted for 90.49% (65,593 people) of our net statewide population growth of 72,487: Minnehaha, Lincoln, Pennington, Meade, Union, and Brookings. That’s mostly town people in Sioux Falls and the suburbs it’s swallowing to the south, Rapid City and its I-90 flanks, Brookings, and the Iowa commuters from Sioux City settling west of the Big Sioux.

The biggest county that shrank was Lake. My impression was that Lake County and its county seat of Madison were growing. The Census Bureau thought so, too, projecting last year that Madison was going to see possibly 13% growth, booming to well over 7,000. But the  official count shows Madison shrank 4.4%, from 6,474 in 2010 to 6,191 last year, a loss of 283 people. Folks must have moved out to the lakes: Lake County as a whole shrank 1.26%, losing 141 people.

Lake County was the only county with a population over 10,000 that lost people. The other 32 counties that shrank started the decade with four-figure populations and just got smaller.  Jones County, home of Murdo, Draper, Okaton, and Capa, is the only county in South Dakota with fewer than 1,000 people—they lost 89 people, 8.85% of their 2010 population, to end up at 917.

Jones was not the biggest loser by number or percentage. Faulk (Faulkton), Hyde (Highmore), Ziebach (Dupree), and Jerauld (Wessington Springs) all saw population declines of double-digit percentages. Jerauld saw the largest decline by percentage and number: the Census counted 408 fewer people in and around Wessington Springs in 2020 than in 2010, a 19.7% decline.

The 33 counties that lost population make up less than 15% of South Dakota’s 2020 population. 64% of South Dakotans now live in our ten largest counties.


  1. Joe 2021-08-15 10:02

    For many rural counties in the Great Plains, population peaked in 1930 and it’s been downhill ever since. Some of this territory probably should never have been settled in the first place.

  2. jerry 2021-08-15 10:26

    Very correct Joe. Old timer ranchers said that West River was the best hard grass ever that should never have seen a plow. Rewilding the west to save the planet, makes more and more sense. Give it back to nature and the white tailed deer….. oh oh…. “White-tailed deer, a species found in every U.S. state except Alaska, appear to be contracting the coronavirus in the wild, according to the first study to search for evidence of an outbreak in wild deer.

    Researchers with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) analyzed blood samples from more than 600 deer in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and Pennsylvania over the past decade, and they discovered that 152 wild deer, 40 percent of the deer tested from January through March 2021, had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Another three deer from January 2020 also had antibodies.”

    Okay okay, the buffalo. Give it back to the buffalo so that those that were sustained from them (you know who) will be better stewards for the planets future.

  3. Tim H 2021-08-15 10:28

    When driving into Madison, the city marker lists the population at north of 7000. I have never believed this to be accurate. I believe the increase was due to which no longer has a presence in Madison. The current population listed in this article of 6191 seems much more reasonable.

  4. Richard Schriever 2021-08-15 10:43

    Ha ha ha. Tim H’s comment reminds me that the “official sign” population of Lennox depends – apparently – on which direction one enters the city from Higher from the North, lowest from the West. 3 different numbers.

  5. grudznick 2021-08-15 10:50

    That is disturbing, Mr. Schriever, and I suspect the numbers are hard to verify. For when you enter the town of Lennox, the number should go up by one, and possibly down by 2 if you push a few fellows out the other side with your presence. Those signs are put up by the DOT, so this is but another failure of Governor Noem.

    In Mr. H’s soon to be posted big blogging we will probably hear about this.

  6. Porter Lansing 2021-08-15 11:45

    The census showed that:

    Urban areas are growing, very fast.
    Rural areas are dying, very fast.

    Angry, white males will never again do an UGLY TRUMP, on our beautiful country.

  7. Guy 2021-08-15 12:05

    Spearfish keeps growing in West River, along with Lawrence County.

  8. grudznick 2021-08-15 12:21

    The real growth up there in the County of Lawerence is by Maitland. grudzCOIN had bought many a fine house in the woods for some of my pals. Lawrence is a fine place filled with Conservatives it’s Common Sense.

  9. mike from iowa 2021-08-15 12:44

    Whitetails are indeed creeping into Alaska, Jerry. New Zealand has a healthy population of them, as well. Healthy meaning sizable, in this instance.

  10. Porter Lansing 2021-08-15 13:59

    Ghost Towns of Lawrence County

    Blacktail – Carbonate – Crook City – Crown Hill – Flatiron – Greenwood – Lancaster City –
    Maitland – Nahant – Novak – Ragged Top -Terraville -Tinton -Trojan

  11. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-15 14:08

    well…before the Gold Company tore down the mountain and put it through a rock crusher there was a healthy population of 20-25 in Trojan…plenty of people building in the woods around Tinton..the area around Maitland is served by a decent road which makes population growth possible. Most folks living off the track in the Hills are heavily armed and living in a fantasy world.

  12. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-15 14:18

    well, I’m also very concerned about the Highway 34 corridor…its pretty conservative politically though it used to have about a 50-50 split between Dems and Pubs…Its corn and cow country and has been targeted as a prime place for hog confinement and feed lots…then, it would be smelly and empty….rather than just empty.

  13. M 2021-08-15 16:35

    I haven’t met a map I didn’t like!!!!

    You can tell so much from looking at these maps and assume why there are loses and gains in those areas. The youth are fleeing the farm, ranches, and small towns. Births probably even out the deaths but once family is gone, older people move away.

    I taught west river near the N.D. border and school retirees moved to the hills. I live east river near the border and retirees prefer the Sioux Empire or Minnesnowta.

    In the northcentral, we are 100 miles from a Walmart, clothing stores, and Menards. People move to where the shopping is and closest to the interstate. I’m pleasantly surprised that Brown County is growing. Many of us shop in Aberdeen because the people and businesses are so welcoming and inclusive. Plus, we keep our money in the state. That’s where I’ll move when I take the next step to apartment living downtown.

  14. M 2021-08-15 16:37

    It also looks like the population is leaving where there is no higher education offered, growth where it is.

  15. Mark Anderson 2021-08-15 18:59

    Well, you know what this means folks…It won’t be that long until Democrats and Democratic ideas can win. Urban centers in every state make for a democratic US of A. The switch can be quick, people are basically good and do get tired of the divide and conquer bull of the trumpies.

  16. John 2021-08-15 21:28

    South Dakota needs a law that a county has to have a population of 3,000 to be a viable county.
    Such a law will force 18 counties to consolidate for efficiencies and effective service delivery.
    Our government structure and infrastructure must reflect our changes in population and the needs of that population.

  17. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-15 21:55

    Well..John..we can’t even get school district consolidation through the legislature. You are correct…county consolidation is past overdue..during the statehood organization county size was governed by the distances a county resident had to travel to get to the courthouse for paying taxes, conducting business, or serving on juries. Most of those functions can be done remotely now.I haven’t had cause to go to the courthouse for over 10 years.

  18. M 2021-08-16 05:19

    John you are spot on! We need to consolidate counties AND school districts. Each circumstance is different and needs to be looked at individually. Open enrollment screwed things up for us the the northcentral part of the state. Mobridge and Pollock consolidated for less than a dozen students when they should have combined with Herreid which is so much closer. 37 vs 16 miles

    Mobridge rarely closed for snow days but when combined with Pollock and couldn’t get those few kids here 9 times that year, parents in Mobridge demanded a change. So we do have to be careful in what we ask for.

  19. John 2021-08-16 08:10

    One has to wonder if every family in Jones County has a full or part time county, state, or federal employee? Talk about “big government” involved in nearly everyone’s life. If one also factored in the families receiving federal ag subsidies and payments – then one’s assured of a government take over of Jones County.

  20. Joe 2021-08-16 12:03

    M: My folks are from Walworth County (moved to Rapid City shortly after they married). Two of my cousins have remade the old family homesteads as “second homes” they visit in the summer; the land is now leased to larger scale farmers and ranchers.

    The last time I visited I was encouraged to see that Mobridge seems to be retaining a viable population base. The rest of the county still has the amazing vistas but much of the populace is gone. I’m glad to read Aberdeen is doing OK.

  21. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-08-16 13:42

    I am intrigued by the suggestion that the loss of those thousand-some RVers from the residency fabrication center on Center Street across from the Post Office may have cost Madison and Lake County population. If those folks were counting in the 2010 count and in the subsequent projections, then this apparent dip in population is merely a reset to a more accurate representation of the number of people actually living in Madison. It is possible that, with ghost RVers inflating earlier population counts, Madison may have looked like it was underperforming in per-capita economic activity; if this Census is more accurate, we’ll have a better picture of Madison’s real economic capacity.

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-08-17 07:37

    John suggests an interesting measure of county viability: calculate federal dollars per capita.

  23. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-08-17 07:43

    Mark, I’m not sure that switch from rural to urban will bring a swift Democratic shift in South Dakota. South Dakota’s three largest towns aren’t typical bastions of Democratic strength. Aberdeen’s traditional Democratic strength has faded. Rapid City is dominated by Republicans. Sioux Falls has some Dems in office, but Mayor TenHaken is Republican, and Sioux Falls elects more Rs than Ds to Pierre.

    Perhaps we don’t see our big towns go blue because much of their growth is from South Dakotans who leave their rural counties but not their small-town identities. They don’t want to become city folk—the rural kids who do want to become city folk tend to leap past Sioux Falls and head for the Twin Cities or farther abroad—and thus to resist changing their identity, they cling to a conservatism that makes it easy for them to vote for the party of nostalgic rural white identity.

  24. Mark Anderson 2021-08-17 18:35

    Well Cory, California elected Ronald Reagan, it switched rather quickly into the most Democratic State in the country. As long as the Republicans are the party of no, they will lose. Really you all voted for Mary Jane. How hard can it be?

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