HELENA — For many Montanans, few questions strike at the heart of personal identity quite like the making-your-acquaintance classic, “Where are you from, originally?”

Being able to answer “from here” is perhaps the ultimate signifier of Montana street cred, especially in parts of the state where the rise of the scenery economy has stocked the population with outsiders and, oftentimes, out-of-state wealth. Being a born-and-raised local is considered an authentic marker of belonging in the Last Best Place — a marker that, unlike a pickup or cowboy boots, isn’t available for purchase.

But just how many Montanans are actually “from here”? A Montana Free Press analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicates the answer is less than half, or 47% of residents 25 and older.

(That figure, which excludes younger Montanans to accommodate the demographic influence of children and traditional-age college students, represents a five-year average of American Community Survey data collected between 2013 and 2017.)

In Gallatin County, which includes Bozeman, where Montana State University, tech companies, and tourism have fed a decades-long boom adding more than 32,000 jobs to the local economy since 2001, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, only a third of adults report being Montana-born.

Similarly, Missoula County, Flathead County (Kalispell), and Yellowstone County (Billings) are all majority-transplant, according to the census data. Lewis and Clark County (Helena) and Cascade County (Great Falls) are just on the native-born side of 50-50. Among the state’s seven largest cities, only Butte can claim that a solid majority of its populace, 63%, was born in Montana.

South of Missoula, Ravalli County has the distinction of the highest percentage of transplants in the state, with only 29% of residents saying they were born in Montana. Most other counties along Montana’s western border are also majority-transplant.

While American Community Survey data is sometimes unreliable for sparsely populated counties where its questionnaire reaches relatively fewer people, its data paints a different picture for much of the north-central and eastern Montana plains, and in particular for counties that overlap with Native American reservations.

Glacier County, which includes Cut Bank and most of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, is 65% Native American, and more than three-quarters of its population reports being born in Montana. Big Horn County, encompassing Hardin and a majority of the Crow Indian Reservation, is 66% Native American and 73% Montana-born.

The intangible value of birthplace-based identity aside, economists tend to have a rosier view of in-migration than old-timers grousing about incoming Californians. Economists tend to regard people moving between cities and states as good for the economic prospects of individuals and the economy as a whole, on the basis that mobility allows job seekers to pursue opportunity by following job creation. In Montana so far this century, that has generally meant moving to cities, which are attracting new arrivals from inside and outside the state’s borders.

In the Bozeman area, for example, census data indicates that roughly 4,100 adults 25 and older are new arrivals to Gallatin County within the last year, and two-thirds of them are from out of state. Statewide, the Census Bureau estimates that Montana sees about 22,800 new residents from out of state annually, approximately 2,000 of those coming from outside the U.S.

Some economists argue that jobs in so-called scenery economies like the booming parts of western Montana tend to follow people, rather than the other way around. Let recreation opportunities and pretty landscapes draw new arrivals into a place, the thinking goes, then they’ll bolster the economy by buying property and starting businesses.

Montana’s fastest-growing economies, Bozeman among them, also have relatively high proportions of residents born out of state. In contrast, reservation counties and other communities with high rates of Montana-born residents have tended generally toward stagnant or negative job growth so far this century.

A few western Montana counties — Mineral, Lincoln, Sanders, and Ravalli — buck the overall trend, apparently because they’ve become retirement destinations where new Montanans can move with less concern for the state of the local economy.

While 58% of adult new arrivals to Montana statewide are in the 25 to 44 age bracket, the figure is about half that, 30%, in Ravalli County. At the other end of the age spectrum, 13% of new adult Montanans are 65 or older, while in Mineral County, retirement-age adults account for more than half of new arrivals.

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Reach Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.