ERSKINE, Minn. – Marc Plante can remember when Erskine had three grocery stores, a motel and two cafes.

Now the mayor of the northwest Minnesota community, Plante has lived in Erskine for most of his life. He says people older than him tell stories about the town’s bowling alley and movie theater. But in recent years, he has seen more businesses in the town close as Erskine's population has grown smaller.

Erskine’s population has been declining since the 1960s, and this year’s census told the same story – the 2020 census reported that since 2010, the population dropped from 503 to 403, a 19.9% decrease.

Erskine isn't unique. While larger cities in northwest Minnesota – East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls, for example – continued to grow, many smaller towns lost population between 2010 and 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

In East Grand Forks, the population increased by 575 in the past decade, to 9,176, for a gain of 6.7%. Thief River Falls rose by 176 to 8,743, a gain of 2.1%. Crookston declined by 409 residents, to 7,482, a decrease of 5.2%.

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Meanwhile, a number of small Minnesota towns in the region saw notable population decreases in the past decade, including Baudette (-12.7%), Clearbrook (-10.4%), Argyle (-14.9%), Stephen (-10%) and Oslo (-27.6%), according to the Census Bureau.

However, Susan Brower, Minnesota state demographer, said these population declines should not be cause for alarm. While small towns are losing population, Brower sees relative stability in the area.

“When I hear people talk about it, it just seems like they have this sense that their towns or their counties are completely emptying out,” said Brower. “It's much less straightforward than just a one-way bus ticket to a larger town.”

Plante understands why Erskine’s population changed between 2010 and 2020.

“We have a lot of elderly people, and we’ve lost some of that population,” said Plante. “Then you're not replacing it with the younger ones because a lot of the younger ones leave for job opportunities.”

However, he says the housing market in town is good and he hopes by 2030, the town will have a population closer to what it was in 2010.

Brett Kuznia, city clerk and former mayor in Stephen, was not surprised to learn his community's population decreased. The town’s population has been declining since the 1970s, but he did note that he sees a resurgence of young families coming to the area.

“I think people are realizing that small-town living is kind of a good thing to do for raising their families,” said Kuznia.

Brower said Kuznia’s observations reflect a common migration pattern in rural areas. Often, people in their late teens and early 20s leave small towns for reasons like school or employment opportunities, while people in their 30s sometimes move back to small towns.

“People do move back to some of these more rural areas, once they're a little bit older and have families of their own and are looking to return to their families and communities. But that return migration typically is not big enough to counter the initial outflow of younger people,” said Brower.

At the same time people in their 20s leave towns, and people in their 30s move to towns, rural areas face another population challenge – aging populations. Brower says the pattern of more young people leaving than coming back leaves small towns with more older residents.

“It's really hard for a population to grow because you have so many people who are in their older years,” said Brower. “They're not having babies themselves, and they're more likely to be in the high mortality age group.”

In Oslo, environmental factors accelerated the town’s population loss. From 2010 to 2020, the population dropped from 330 to 239, down 91 people and 27.6%. In 2013, Oslo was outfitted with a new levee system to protect the town from flooding of the Red River, but 24 houses along the riverbank were torn out to make room for the levees.

“That was a huge impact for the city, not only people-wise, but for the tax base and everything else. It was a bad deal, but with the flooding situations that they were dealing with all those years, they didn’t really have a choice,” said Mayor Erika Martens.

Martens says the town does not have the money to offer tax breaks or otherwise incentivize people to move to town.

“We just try to promote ourselves as a nice, clean-living town that’s close to a lot of things, and really depend on word of mouth,” said Martens.

While some saw the census count reflected in their towns, others were surprised to learn what the census reported.

Allen Burtilrud, mayor of Red Lake Falls, said he and his city administrator discussed the results of the 2020 census and feel there is a mistake somewhere. The census reported a 6.2% decrease in population in the town since 2010.

“The reason I’m saying that is our school population has actually grown over the past couple of years, and we have a number of new homes and a number of new twin homes in the area,” said Burtilrud. “It just surprised us that we had dropped like that.”

Brower said people are right to be skeptical of census numbers. Nobody is completely sure how COVID-19 affected the decennial count, and new strategies employed by the U.S. Census Bureau to protect privacy may skew numbers.

This year, the Census Bureau used a process called "differential privacy" to help protect the identities of census participants. The process makes the data fuzzier on lower levels of geography, such as households and blocks, to make it harder to identify people from reported numbers. Using differential privacy, the Census Bureau may report a household is living in a place where there are no houses, while another block might have more households than houses are actually there. Numbers are switched around on low levels, but at the county level and higher, numbers appear accurately.

Brower says this new method of protecting privacy could account for some of the inconsistencies and surprising results mayors may be seeing.

While most small towns in northwestern Minnesota saw a decline in population, a handful in the region gained population. Badger was among the towns reporting the most growth in this census. In 2010, Badger had a population of 375, but the 2020 census reported a population of 429, a 14.4% increase over the decade. The town is located 12 miles from Roseau, which also grew in population.

James Rinde, mayor of Badger, says during his 15 years as mayor, the growth in town has been noticeable.

“When I moved back here there were a lot of 'for sale' signs and a lot of empty houses,” said Rinde. “A few years down the road, there’s nothing right now in Badger. I think we have probably one or two houses for sale.”

Rinde attributes much of the town’s growth to industry in the area. Nearby companies Polaris, Marvin Windows, Central Boiler and Digi-Key employ many in Badger and surrounding towns. Agriculture also is important.

Rinde also believes the area’s opportunities for outdoor recreation – like camping, hunting and fishing – draw people.

“Badger is known for being the mallard capital of the world, you know,” said Rinde. “And we’re very fortunate to have Lake of the Woods not that far from here.”

Dan Fabian, mayor of Roseau, echoed Rinde’s sentiments about what draws new people to the area. Roseau also grew in size over the last decade, with the population increasing from 2,633 to 2,744, an increase of 4.2%.

In the area, jobs are plentiful and pay is good, says Fabian.

“You know when people were talking about $15 an hour minimum wage a few years ago, we blew past $15 minimum wage at most of our major employers up here two, three, four, years before they even started talking about a $15 wage,” said Fabian.

Fabian says he sees a lot of young people leave the community for school and come back to work after graduation.

“We’ve got some doctors and nurses who went out and got their education and training and come back to town. We’ve got several school teachers who have come back here after college,” said Fabian.

Warroad, which is also in Roseau county, also saw population growth in the 2020 census – up 2.8% to 1,830.