HELENA - Montana's population topped the 1 million mark for the first time in late 2011, state officials have estimated.

"Montana is starting the new year off with a bang," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. "People from all over the world recognize that Montana is the best place to start and grow a small business, raise a family and build a community."

Officials with the Census and Economic Information Center at the Montana Department of Commerce estimated that Montana surpassed the 1 million population milestone sometime between November and December 2011, the governor's office said. They analyzed growth trends between the 2000 and the 2010 Census counts for Montana, along with recent population estimates from U.S. Census Bureau and estimates from two independent projection firms.

The 2010 Census count found Montana's population to be at 989,415, a 9.5 percent increase over the state's 2000 population of 903,773.

Montana is now one of 44 states whose populations have eclipsed the 1 million mark. The six states with populations of less than 1 million are Alaska, Delaware, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Other than the psychological effect, Montana's hitting the 1 million population level won't have a significant impact on federal funding for the state and its programs, officials said.

In honor of the news, Schweitzer also said he is launching the "Governor Schweitzer's One in a Million" scholarship fund for Montana kids born between Dec. 25, 2011 and Jan. 1, 2012, who study science or math, starting in 2030, at a unit of the Montana university system.

He gave the first $1,000 and encouraged others to donate to the tax-deductible fund.

"This is a gift for the future," Schweitzer said. "I believe one of the best things we can do is help further the education of Montana students."

Those interested in donating to the fund may call the governor's office at (406) 444-3111 for additional information.

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