Please Note:


More Information

The Lake County Directory Research Page
Flathead Lake
Flathead Lake Photographs
Polson Montana
Ronan Montana
Seeley Lake Montana
Population Trends
The History of Montana
Mission Mountain Photographs
The Flathead Nation

Population & Economics 

Issues and trends

The overall population of Lake County is growing quickly.  This mirrors a growth pattern found throughout western Montana and the Rocky Mountain West.  Families with older school age children (11-17) are moving in at a steady rate. Young adults are leaving, presumably for school or entry-level work opportunities.  Middle-age and retirement-age people are both moving in at a rapid rate and living longer than ever before.   Currently, 44 percent of the population is either under 18 or over 65, while the state average is 40 percent.  These age groups require more costly services (such as education and medical attention) than others.  In the near future, as the population continues to age, the need for costly services will increase.  Over the next 25 years, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that Lake County will be home to 12,500 new residents.  

The Montana, regional, and local economies are changing, yet remain growing and healthy.  The traditionally dominant resource-extraction industries are losing their hold on the economy due to national and international economic and political factors. The service sector now plays the dominant role, while the manufacturing, government, construction, and retail industries employ large numbers of workers and provide economic opportunities.  Despite the generally favorable picture, the historically strong farm sector is hurting due to low commodity prices and fluctuating markets.  Farmers and ranchers now typically rely on outside income to support their operations.    

Lake County’s economy is diverse, as almost one third of the workforce is self-employed.  There appears to be a surplus of non-professional workers in Lake County, compared to the economic centers of Missoula and Kalispell.  Personal income is relatively low, poverty rates are high, and education levels are average when compared to state figures.   Personal income is growing faster than the state and national averages, although Montanans are more likely to hold two jobs than their counterparts in other areas.  Additionally, most levels of job-training and economic development services are available both locally and regionally.   


For the past 40 years, the population of Lake County has grown at a steady rate.  During the 1960s, the growth rate averaged about two percent per year.  The 1970s saw the more rapid rate of growth of approximately 3.5 percent per year, followed by a leveling off during the 1980s.  During 1990s, the growth rate again increased to its current level of almost five percent per year.  Figure 1 depicts of the changes in population in Lake County from 1960 to 2000.

The 2000 U.S. Census count shows the population of Lake County at 26,507 people.  Lake County is currently ranked tenth in population for Montana counties.  From 1990 to 2000, the County grew by 26 percent, or 5,466 persons.  During that same period, the Montana population grew by almost 13 percent.  The current rate of growth in Lake County is more than a 50 percent increase over that which occurred during the 1980s, when the overall growth rate was 10.4 percent.

 A similar trend appears throughout western Montana and the Rocky Mountain West as a whole.  The three counties that border Lake County, Flathead, Sanders and Missoula, grew at rates of 25.75, 19, and 21.75 percent, respectively, from 1990 to 2000.   Also during that period, the combined average population growth of Idaho, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico was approximately 24 percent.

  Population growth within Lake County from 1990 to 2000 can be largely attributed to migration from other parts of the state and country.  In-migration accounted for 87 percent of the growth, while births-minus-deaths accounted for 12 percent, and international migration for one percent.  Approximately 20 percent of Lake County’s population arrived from 1990 to 2000.

Lake County is more densely populated than Montana as a whole.  The average population density of Lake County is 17.75 people per square mile, while the average population density of Montana is six people per square mile.  Approximately 25 percent of Lake County’s population lives within the incorporated communities of Polson, Ronan and St. Ignatius.  These areas grew by 23, 17 and 1.25 percent respectively during the 1990s.  (It appears that the slow rate of growth within the town of St. Ignatius is largely attributable to the lack of sewer capacity in its municipal system.) Despite the relatively fast growth of the incorporated areas, 75 percent of the population of Lake County lives in unincorporated areas.   The unincorporated population centers are Arlee, Charlo, Pablo, Woods Bay, Elmo, Big Arm, Dayton, Rollins, Swan Lake, Finley Point and Ravalli.  Of these, Arlee and Charlo each grew by approximately 23 percent, Pablo grew by almost 40 percent, and Finley Point grew by 25 percent.


  The Flathead Indian Reservation is the remaining homeland of two major Salish-speaking tribes, the Salish and the Pend d’Oreilles, and one band of the Kootenai Tribe.  The three tribes historically prospered by developing seasonal harvesting, hunting and fishing practices based on local and regional knowledge of natural patterns.  While the separate Tribes had distinct ranges, the combined aboriginal territory covered much of the northwestern United States and parts of British Columbia and Alberta (CS&KT 1994).  A brief general history, excerpted from the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes’ 1994 Comprehensive Resources Plan, is provided as Appendix E.

  In 1855, leaders of the Salish, Pend d’Oreilles and Kootenai Tribes met with Governor Isaac Stevens of the Washington Territory at Council Grove on the Clark Fork River, near present-day Missoula.  The purpose of the meeting was to negotiate a land and peace agreement between the Tribes and the United States Government.  What emerged was the Hellgate Treaty, which created the Flathead Indian Reservation for the sole use and benefit of the Indians of the Confederated Tribes (Bigart and Woodcock 1996).  By signing this treaty, the Indians retained a portion of their aboriginal lands and relinquished exclusive rights to the majority of their historic territory.

The U.S. Government, in an effort to assimilate the Indians into a settled agricultural life (as opposed to a nomadic one), gave land allotments to Tribal members in 1887 and 1904.  Lands not allotted to Indians were titled “surplus,” and were made available to non-Indians in 1910.  This effectively opened up the Reservation to white settlement (CS&KT 1994).  A further discussion of land ownership patterns is given in the Land Use chapter of this document.

  In the past 90 years, the number of Tribal members living on the Reservation rose by about 2,000 while the non-Tribal population grew by more than 21,000 (CS&KT 2000).  In 2000, the U.S. Census Bureau counted the ethnic composition of Lake County’s population to be one percent African American, Asian, and Pacific Islander, 24 percent American Indian, and 75 percent White (including people of Hispanic origin).  These percentages are consistent with the County’s estimated ethnic makeup during the 1980s.  2000 numerical population and overall percentages for different ethnic groups within Lake County are presented in Table 1-1.      

 Table 1-1: 2000 Single Race Ethnic Group Makeup, Lake County, Montana


Ethnic Group

White (includes white Hispanic)[2]

American Indian*

African American, Asian and Pacific Islander and Other





Percent of Population




*Refers to American Indians of all federally recognized Indian Tribes including Alaska Natives.

Source: Montana Department of Commerce Census and Economic Information Center from U.S. Census Bureau data.


AGES (To be updated with 2000 Census Bureau Data)

  In 1997 in Lake County, approximately 6.75 percent of the population was of preschool age (0-4), 22 percent of primary and secondary school age (5-17), 56 percent was of working age (18-64), and 15.25 percent was of traditional retirement age (65 and older).  Table 1-2 shows numerical population estimates and percentages for different age groups within Lake County.


Table 1-2:  1997 Age and Population Estimates, Lake County Montana


Age Group (years)







Estimated Population







Percent of Population







Source: Montana Department of Commerce Census and Economic Information Center

  During the 1980s, the majority of the population growth was comprised of people 55 years and older, and 30-34 year olds, who typically had children.  People from 20-29 years of age were leaving Lake County in substantial numbers, presumably for educational and entry-level work opportunities.    

  During the first nine years of the 1990s, when the population grew twice as fast as the 1980s, almost all age groups grew at a rapid rate.   The number of 1-10 year olds increased by 26 percent, the number of 38-64 year olds grew by 39 percent and the number of 75+ year olds grew by 31 percent.  The only exception was those in their early 20s, whose numbers fell by almost 19 percent from 1990 to 1997.  


The U. S. Census Bureau predicts that population growth in Lake County will continue at a rate of 4.7 percent through 2025.   This translates into almost 12,500 new residents over that 25-year period.  Table 1-3 shows the Census Bureau’s 2000 population projections for Lake County through 2025.   


Table 1-3:  Population Projections, Lake County Montana  







Projected Population





Percent Increase





Projected Number of New Residents





Source: Montana Department of Commerce Census and Economic Information Center


The United States and the state of Montana have experienced a prolonged period of economic expansion.  During the 1990s, the stock market soared, inflation averaged less than three percent annually, and interest rates dipped lower than seven percent, providing relatively inexpensive investment capital.  While Montana has lagged behind the nation in most measures, economic growth has been steady. 

  The Montana and Lake County economies have changed significantly over the past 30 years.  In 1970, half of Montana’s workers were employed in the basic industries of farming and ranching, the federal government, forestry, manufacturing, mining, and tourism.  These are called basic industries because they bring outside income to the state.  By 1997, only one-quarter of Montana’s workers were employed in these industries.  In Lake County, the federal government and the mining industry do not play a major role, while farming and ranching, forestry, local and tribal governments and tourism all figure significantly in today’s economy.

  The Lake County and Flathead Indian Reservation economies are part of a larger regional picture.  The regional business and economic centers are Missoula and Kalispell.  Local residents go to those cities to purchase and sell goods and services that cannot be found, or have a limited market, locally.  Population centers like Polson, Ronan, Pablo, St. Ignatius, and Arlee provide local employment and purchasing opportunities.  The local population and regional economic centers share an interdependent relationship: Lake County and the Reservation have goods and services, such as wood products and recreational opportunities, that urban residents enjoy, while the economic centers have shopping and business opportunities that cannot be found locally.

  Economic activity grew steadily throughout the 1990s in Lake County.  Tourism and recreation, retail sales, construction, and manufacturing all continued to grow, although the rate of expansion slowed by some measures toward the end of the decade.  Jobs were relatively plentiful, however many of them were part-time and provided low wages.  Some recent, larger examples of economic growth in the County include Tribal developments such as KwaTaqNuk, the People’s Center and the Salish Kootenai College expansion, Wal-Mart, Polson, St. Ignatius and Arlee post offices, new banking, fast food, and grocery facilities, and the rapid hiring and facility expansion of Jore Corporation. The farm sector is the only major segment that suffered during the 1990s.  

  In addition to these large and well-known businesses, the numerous small businesses of Lake County are a major sustainer of economic activity.  The majority of these are low-profile, home-based and employ few non-family members.  They typically provide the local economy with diversity and strength, increase the tax base, provide some job opportunities, and have a minimal impact on local services.  In 1996, almost one-third of the workforce in Lake County was self-employed, as shown in Table 1-4.             


  Economists use groups of industries, or sectors, to evaluate economic conditions.  The service sector employs more workers and produces more personal income than any other sector in Lake County.  Services do not typically make a “product,” but use knowledge to generate income.  Some examples are medical care, auto repair, legal representation, and tourism.  This sector now employs one out of every three workers in Lake County, up from one in five in 1975.

  The percentage of workers employed in the government sector (federal, tribal, state and local) has declined in recent years.  In 1995, government employed about 12 percent of the workers in Lake County, compared with almost 20 percent in 1975.  Due to record low commodity prices and mechanization, farm employment probably makes up a smaller percentage of the workforce now than ever before.  In 1975, almost 19 percent of the workforce was employed in farming or ranching.  In 1996 less than 10 percent was.  Nonetheless, there are just as many farms and ranches today in Lake County as there were in 1975. [3]

  The timber industry has a solid base in Lake County, due largely to the present lands owned by Plum Creek Timber and the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes.  However, reductions in the amount of board feet taken from the Flathead National Forest and Tribally owned lands may be affecting the numbers employed in the timber industry. The other major sectors, including retail trade, construction, and manufacturing, have been fairly stable over the past 25 years in terms of employing a given percentage of the workforce.  Table 1-4 shows the number and percentage of workers in the major employment sectors during 1975, 1985, and 1996.

  The major employers in Lake County at this time include the Tribes, Jore Corporation, St. Luke Healthcare Network, the Polson and Ronan school districts and Plum Creek.  Table 1-5 ranks the top 20 employers in Lake County by the approximate number of employees during June 1999, and gives their locations and the economic sector they fall into.

Table 1-5:  Major Employers in Lake County, June 1999


Major Employers


Approximate Number of Employees (Full- and Part-time)

Economic Sector

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes

Flathead Reservation

1,150, includes 250 summer  hires


Jore Corporation


650, additional hires during the 4th quarter


St. Luke Healthcare Network




School District 23


230 (September – June)


School District 30


220 (September – June)


Plum Creek




Salish and Kootenai College*


210 (September – June)


Home Caregivers, Inc.




KwaTaqNuk Resort*


125, includes 60 summer hires


St. Joseph Hospital






120, includes summer hires


Lake County

County wide

120, includes16 summer hires


Moody’s Market/Super 1 Foods

Ronan and Polson



Mission Mountain Enterprises








School District 8


85 (September – June)


Kicking Horse Job Corps*




Evergreen Health Center




S & K Electronics*




School District 7


50 (September – June)


Source: Personal conversations with human resource administrators 6/3/99.

*Entities of the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes.  The number of employees at each of these locations is not included in the total number of Tribal employees shown at the top of the table.



  Personal income is defined as money generated from all sources, including work, investments, and transfer payments (social security, medicare, etc.).  In 1996, 51.8 percent of the total personal income generated in Lake County came from labor, 22.5 percent from investments, and 25.6 percent from transfer payments (CRMW 1998).  The percentages of income generated from investments and transfer payments are significantly higher than the surrounding counties, which may reflect the large number of retirees living in the area.

  Per capita income (total personal income divided by the number of residents) has historically been lower in Lake County than state and national averages.  In 1997, for example, the average per capita income was $16,555 in Lake County, $19,660 in Montana, and $25,288 across the United States (CEIC 1998).  Figure 2 depicts the change in per capita income over time in Lake County, Montana, and the United States.  Although the 1997 per capita income in Lake County was 35 percent below the national average, since 1990 the local per capita income has risen by almost 3.4 percent per year while the inflation rate has risen by an average of 2.85 percent per year (CEIC 1999).   

  Why is the per capita income so low in Lake County?  Some of the reasons may be the lack of a complex urban market, fewer technology-related and managerial jobs, a relatively high unemployment rate, and the high percentage of seasonal jobs. 

  The largest economic sector in both employment and personal income in Lake County is the service sector.  In 1975, service-related jobs employed 19 percent of the labor market and accounted for just over 25 percent of non-farm labor earnings.  In 1996, the service sector employed 33 percent of the workforce and was responsible for almost 43 percent of these earnings. The next closest income sector is retail sales, which generated over 16 percent of all non-farm labor earnings, followed by manufacturing at almost 15 percent and construction at almost 11%.  Table 1-6 shows the percentages of total labor income in relation to the major sectors of the economy over time. 

  Table 1-6:  Sector Percentages of the Total Labor Earnings and Total Non-farm Labor Earnings  for 1975, 1985, and 1996, Lake County, Montana*






Sector percentages of total labor earnings:

Private non-farm sectors




Government sectors




Farm sector




Sector percentages of non-farm labor earnings:





Retail Trade












Finance, insurance, & real estate




Agricultural services,                                  forestry, fisheries, etc.                                                                                     




Transportation and public utilities




Wholesale trade








*  This table does not reflect the expansion of Jore Corporation from 1996 to 2000.

**This figure was derived from a statistical analysis of estimated net farm income; gross farm revenue less expenses.  It does not represent the impact farming operations have on the local economy and is dependent on commodity prices.

Source: O’Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West, Regional Economic Assessment Database

  Lake County has historically had a higher annual unemployment rate than Montana and the nation.  This is due in part to the seasonal nature of many of the available jobs, such as those in agriculture and tourism.  According to many of the larger employers in the area, non-professional workers are available for employment, while professional workers are more scarce.  Table 1-7 shows the unemployment rates for Lake County and Montana from 1992 to 1998.   

  Table 1-7:  Unemployment Rates for Lake County and Montana, 1992-1998  


Lake County























Source: MT Dept of Labor and Industry, Office of Research and Analysis


  Each year the U.S. Census Bureau establishes thresholds to measure the number of people living below a certain income level.  The numbers are used to formulate economic policy and distribute social service aid.  The poverty threshold for 1995 was $11,235 for a household with two adults and one child. 

  The percentage of people living below the poverty level in Lake County has been, and continues to be, above the state average, particularly for people under 18 years of age.  This may be attributed to a number of factors including the low per capita income and the seasonal nature of many local jobs.  Additionally, the poverty threshold is a national figure that does not reflect the relatively lower cost of living and higher degree of subsistence activities (farming and ranching for personal consumption and hunting and fishing) that take place in Montana and Lake County.  Table 1-8 shows estimates for the percentage of people in Montana and Lake County that live below the poverty threshold.  

  Table 1-8:  Estimates for People Living Below the Poverty Threshold, Montana and Lake County



Lake County


All ages

Under 18

All ages

Under 18



Data not available


Data not available
















 Source: MT Department of Commerce, Census and Economic Information Center


  The level of education in Lake County is a major factor affecting the types of employers that are attracted to the area and the types of jobs that are appropriate for the population.  The most recent education data available at the county level were collected during the 1990 census.  These figures show that the citizens of Lake County possess similar levels of education as the citizens of Montana as a whole.  However, Lake County residents have a slightly lower rate of bachelor and graduate/professional degree attainment than the state average.  Table 1-9 shows the 1990 education levels for all people 25 and older in Montana and Lake County.

  One of the challenges facing Lake County and Montana is to provide employers with workers who meet the demands of the changing job market.  Local American Indian students have access to job training at Kicking Horse Job Corps.  Advanced vocational and professional training opportunities are available in Pablo at Salish and Kootenai College, in Kalispell at Flathead Valley Community College, and in Missoula at the University of Montana.

Table 1-9:  1990 education levels for all people 25 and older, Montana and Lake County


Highest education level completed


Lake County

< 9th grade



<12th  grade



High school graduate



Some college



Associate degree



Bachelor degree



Graduate or professional degree



Source: MT Department of Commerce, Census and Economic Information Center


  Much of the economic growth in western Montana and Lake County comes from the expansion of existing businesses, as opposed to the attraction of new ones.  Businesses have been reluctant to relocate to Montana due to the distance from major markets.  As the national labor force becomes more mobile and businesses search for locations where the quality of life is high however, this may change.  

There is a limited relationship between taxes and the creation of jobs and investments.  There are two tax incentives however (the County Business Incentive and the Reservation-Based Federal Tax Incentive), that give some local businesses breaks for locating in Lake County and on the Flathead Indian Reservation.  Governments can also encourage economic growth by improving infrastructure, zoning for commercial and industrial uses (which may prevent nuisance lawsuits), and limiting unnecessary regulation.  

A number of local agencies provide business and financial management training and services, identify and pursue market opportunities, and give business owners a unified voice.   These include the Lake County Development Corporation, city, and regional chambers of commerce, the Business Assistance Center at Salish & Kootenai College, and the S&K Holding Company.  

[1] All population figures are based on information provided by the United States Census Bureau.  This information is available through the Montana Department of Commerce at

[2] The race and Hispanic origin categories used by the Census Bureau are mandated by Office of Management and Budget Directive No. 15, which requires all federal record keeping and data presentation to use four race categories (White, Black, American Indian and Alaska Native, and Asian and Pacific Islander) and two ethnicity categories (Hispanic, non-Hispanic).  These classifications are not intended to be scientific in nature, but are designed to promote consistency in federal record keeping and data presentation.  This system treats race and ethnicity as separate and independent categories.  This means that within the federal system everyone is classified as both a member of one of the four race groups and also as either Hispanic or non-Hispanic.

[3] The term “farm” refers to both crop and livestock operations and is based on income tax, social security and unemployment insurance records.  Generally, to qualify as a farm, an operation must produce at least $500 of income annually.


Please Note:

This information is provided for reference only.  This information was current when published, however The Lake County Directory is not responsible for out-of-date information.  The Lake County Directory accepts public documentation submitted by the public.  If you feel you work has been plagiarized and is posted on the Lake County Directory please contact us to receive proper credit or have the information removed.  The Lake County Directory does not condone copying individual work without proper credit. 
Click Here to submit an article.

This information was provided by the Lake County Courthouse

The Lake County Directory