Gila County Courthouse

If it weren't for new people moving to Arizona, some counties actually would be losing population.

New figures today from the U.S. Census Bureau show there were more people who died last year in four counties than were born there. Mohave County had a net “natural loss” of 731 residents last year, with Yavapai County not far behind with deaths exceeding births by 726.

Gila County had 148 more residents die than were born there, and tiny La Paz County nearly broke even with a net loss of 52.

The new report also finds that Maricopa County had the second highest absolute growth rate of any county in the entire country, adding 68,800. Only Harris County in Texas, where Houston is located, did better, with population up at almost 83,000.

At the other extreme, Cochise County lost a larger percentage of its population than anywhere else, not only in Arizona but the entire country.

But that 1.7-percent decline was not due to natural losses, with births still exceeding deaths in Cochise County by 465. Instead, the county shed more than 2,700 residents who the Census Bureau reports decided to move elsewhere, whether another county, another state – or out of the country entirely.

The “why” behind that appears to be related to Fort Huachuca.

“We were fighting two wars,” explained Robert Carreira, director of the Center for Economic Research at Cochise College. Most significant, he said, that involved a lot of people working for private defense contractors, many of them former military personnel who found ways to make a lot more on the outside.

“As we've wound down these wars, we don't have as much of a need for these defense contractors,” Carreira said. “So those jobs go away.”

But that's not all.

“As fewer active military are deployed, you don't need the civil servants anymore,” he said.

That migration, both domestic and international, played a key role beyond Cochise County in who is living in Arizona, and where. Perhaps most crucial is keeping the state's graying counties from simply becoming a collection of ghost towns as their aging populations die off.

In Arizona, about 14.8 percent of all residents are 65 and older. By contrast, nearly a quarter of Mohave County residents fell into that same category, with the figure slightly higher than that in Yavapai County.

Looking at it another way, those counties are far more gray.

Consider: The median age of a typical Arizonan is less than 37. Yet for Mohave County, the median age is 49. And it's even higher in Yavapai County, at 51.

The state's two largest counties are far younger, with a median age of just slightly more than 35 in Maricopa County and 38 in Pima County.

What kept these aging counties from shrinking – or shrinking more than they otherwise would as residents died off – was inflow from elsewhere.

Mohave County, for example, added 336 new residents from elsewhere. That helped keep the county's net population loss to just 112.

And Yavapai County managed to actually grow by more than 2,600 as 3,200 people from elsewhere in Arizona or the rest of the country – and even 117 from other countries – chose to make it their home.

Santa Cruz County found itself in just the opposite situation.

The Census Bureau reports that 864 people moved out, including 47 who left the country entirely. But the county's birth rate managed to at least partly mitigate that, keeping total loss to just 456.

Ditto Yuma County whose net natural growth of 1,733 helped offset a population outflow of 2,464.

Overall, the Census Bureau figures that more than 26,000 people move to Arizona last year from other states, with another close to 10,900 coming here from other countries.

That brought total growth in the state last year to 75,475, bringing the state's population estimate to 6,626,624, a 1.2 percent year-over-year growth rate.

Statewide, the natural growth – births minus deaths – was just 35,720. But Arizona also inherited 26,417 new residents from other states and another 10,864 who move here from other countries.

But the picture varies widely statewide.

Greenlee County grew the most, at least proportionately, with a 3.1 percent boost in residents. Of course, it took just 274 new people to achieve that. And Maricopa County, with that second-to-highest absolute growth in the nation, was highest in the state.

Cochise County held

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