ANCHORAGE - In the last eight years, many rural Alaskans moved away and had fewer children, leading to a population drop that's likely to continue, according to a new state report.
The rural population fell by 3.6 percent between 2000 and 2008, shedding 5,186 residents.
But the fastest shrinking group is school-age children. Their numbers dropped by 11 percent, leaving three-dozen schools with such low student numbers they could lose state funding.
The report, released by the Division of Community and Regional Affairs, was commissioned out of concern that high fuel prices in 2008 were forcing rural residents to move to urban areas, where gas, electricity and heat are cheaper.
It showed that outmigration in rural Alaska - more people leaving communities than moving in - actually slowed in 2008 from previous years. The report examined 22 rural areas across the state, where the 2008 population was estimated at 138,898. That's almost the same population count as in 1990.
Compared to the 10-year period that began in 1990, outmigration increased sharply between 2000 and 2008, with 2,355 more people moving away each year than moving in.
But in 2008, outmigration dropped to 1,712.
And overall, the rural population grew slightly in 2008, by 57 people. The state report cites studies by the First Alaskans Institute and the Institute of Social and Economic Research that found the lack of jobs in rural areas and other factors were more important than high fuel prices in why people are leaving.
Some rural areas grew during the eight-year period studied by the state. For example, the Bethel census area - roughly following the Kuskokwim River- experienced the most outmigration. About 1,872 more people left than arrived.
But thanks to high birth rates, the population grew in the area by 894. Five other rural areas also grew, again because births exceeded outmigration. For example, the Wade Hampton census area around the lower Yukon River increased by 642. And the Northwest Arctic Borough out of Kotzebue increased by 199.
The North Slope Borough saw the second-largest outmigration, with 1,777 more people leaving than moving in. The loss was not offset by births. Sixteen other rural areas also had a net population loss, with rural areas in Southeast suffering the most.
The report lists 10 schools in risk of losing state education funding, including Red Devil near the middle Kuskokwim River and Akutan and Nikolski in the Aleutian Islands.
Another 26 schools are barely meeting 10-student minimum required for full state funding, including in the communities of False Pass, Nelson Lagoon, Chignik and Pedro Bay on the Alaska Peninsula.
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