According to the latest estimate of the U.S. Census Bureau, Wallowa County’s population in 2012 fell by 187 residents, or 2.7 percent, in two years, the second-highest percentage drop of any county in Oregon.

Not very good news, right? It appears that people are deserting Wallowa County in dribbles if not droves.

But wait! The Population Research Center of Portland State University, which does its own estimates every year, says Wallowa County has actually gained seven folks in two years – not many to be sure, but a gain is better than a loss.

Both estimates cover the period from April 1, 2010, when the county’s census population was reported at 7,008 – the baseline used by both the census bureau and PSU – to July 1, 2012.

The federal bureau estimated the county was home to 6,821 residents as of last July, a loss of 187 people, while PSU – which the State of Oregon uses for its statistical purposes – estimated it was 7,015.

The estimate from one year before, in 2011, was 6,995 from both agencies, which means Wallowa County rebounded by 20 residents in just a year, according to the Population Research Center, while the U.S. Census Bureau said the county continued sliding downward, by a whopping174.

The difference of almost 200 is a significant amount in low-population Wallowa County, especially when it was labeled in a March 13 Portland Oregonian story as being one of five counties in the state – along with Curry, Grant, Lake and Harney – as counties with population losses of over 1 percent since the census, while Oregon as a whole gained 1.8 percent.

The Oregonian’s headline on its website was: “Oregon’s largest counties grow while rural areas empty.”

So is Wallowa County gaining or losing people?

Charles Rynerson, research associate for the Research Center, stands behind the center’s estimates. “Our data may be more timely and closer to the ground” than the census bureau, he said.

He said the net migration data might make the difference. PSU relies on such sources as drivers’ licenses, birth and death records and tax returns. “Neither estimate is perfectly accurate,” he said, adding the real figure is probably somewhere between.

Rynearson said many of the estimates by the two agencies are actually very close, including their estimates of the population of Oregon as a whole. But they also differ for areas besides Wallowa County – the federal figure for Portland’s population is higher that PSU’s, for example.

In the end, the exact population of the county might not matter so much, except for the trend it represents.

One thing is directly affected by the PSU estimate, however. Distribution of state cigarette tax money is based on its population estimates, and according to county treasurer Shonelle Dutcher-Pryce, Wallowa County received $567.90 based on a population of 6,995 at the end of December 2012.

At that rate, if cigarette sales remain stable, Wallowa County can expect about an extra $1.60 in the next tax dispersal – based, of course, on the PSU estimate. The county would lose around $14 if the U.S. Census Bureau estimate were used instead.

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