GREAT FALLS - The population grew on four of Montana's seven American Indian reservations, with the largest increase a 24 percent jump recorded at the state's smallest reservation, new census data show.
Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation, the smallest reservation in terms of land mass, expanded by 647 people over the last decade to bring the total population to 3,323, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
"For us, it's been a pretty steady increase (in students) over the past five or six years," said Mark Irvin, principal of Box Elder Elementary School at the edge of the Rocky Boy's reservation. "The biggest thing is you run out of room."
The Great Falls Tribune reports the reservation, located near Havre and governed by the Chippewa Cree Tribe, still ranks sixth out of seven in terms of population.
The Fort Belknap reservation to the northeast has the smallest population but has a much larger in area than Rocky Boy's. Fort Belknap experienced a 4 percent population decrease, and to the east, the Fort Peck Indian Reservation saw a 3 percent drop.
Blaine County Commissioner Dolores Plumage said those drops were similar to the general population loss in rural eastern Montana.
Plumage, a member of the Salish tribe on the Flathead Indian Reservation, said it's not unusual for Native American young adults to move to Havre, Great Falls, Missoula and the Flathead area for employment or college.
"That's been the challenge, is getting a better economy to keep our young families here," Plumage said.
The Flathead Reservation, the state's largest, grew by 8 percent to 28,359 people in 2010. But non-Native Americans on the reservation outnumbered Indians by more than 2-to-1.
Montana's second-most populous reservation, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation near Glacier National Park, grew by 3 percent, or 305 people, to boost the total reservation population to 10,405 people, according to the census numbers.
More Native Americans - 8,944- lived on the Blackfeet reservation than on the Flathead Reservation, which recorded 7,042 Indians.
The Northern Cheyenne Reservation in southeastern Montana grew by 7 percent, up 319 people to 4,789 over the decade. The adjacent Crow Indian Reservation lost 31 people and saw no growth.
The census data did not include information on the landless Little Shell Chippewa Tribe, which is recognized by Montana but not by the federal government.