New Mexico, Idaho, Utah and other states blessed with wide-open spaces are seeing steady population growth as increasingly cramped Americans look for ways to spread out. Overall, the U.S...

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WASHINGTON — New Mexico, Idaho, Utah and other states blessed with wide-open spaces are seeing steady population growth as increasingly cramped Americans look for ways to spread out.

Overall, the U.S. population grew by almost 3 million people over the past year to just under 294 million, the Census Bureau reported in annual population estimates being released today. States in the West and South dominated the top-10 list of fastest-growing states, with Nevada leading the way for the 18th consecutive year.

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While favorable weather and jobs continue to be primary lures, people also are looking for places that offer space, affordability and the great outdoors. That helped place Idaho fourth on the list of fastest-growing states. Utah was seventh and New Mexico 10th.

Although not among the fastest-growing states, Washington’s population was up 1.2 percent, to 6,203,788 this year from 6,131,298 in 2003.

Robert Lang, a demographer with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, said the fast-growing Western states are appealing to people who want to escape the urban sprawl of big cities such as Los Angeles and Denver.

Fern Bull, 74, moved from Colorado to Layton, Utah, about 25 miles north of Salt Lake City, to be near her two young granddaughters. In the five years since she arrived, a Wal-Mart, a small shopping mall and two new fast-food restaurants have been built on once-empty parcels near her home, she said.

Utah’s population is 2.4 million, up 1.6 percent over the past year and up 7 percent since 2000. Bull, who is involved in a social group that welcomes new residents, said local officials are trying to keep infrastructure on a pace with the influx.

“We’re just trying to get highways and transportation,” she said. “As more people keep moving in, we need more.”

Idaho’s population rose 2 percent over the past year to nearly 1.4 million. There is growth around Boise and in Kootenai County in Northern Idaho.

That is where the shoreline of scenic Lake Coeur d’Alene has been increasingly fenced by million-dollar homes, and subdivisions are climbing higher up the county’s hillsides, said Rand Wichman, the county’s planning and zoning director.

“We’re struggling to keep the infrastructure up with the growth, and schools and roads and all those kinds of things are perpetually behind the curve,” he said. “The question is how long we can keep this a great place to live before the pressure overwhelms us.”

Nevada, spurred in large part by the sprawling growth around Las Vegas, grew by 4.1 percent to 2.3 million.

Arizona had the second-largest growth, up 3 percent to 5.7 million, while Florida was third with a 2.3 percent increase to 17.4 million. Georgia, Texas, Delaware and North Carolina also were in the top 10.

Massachusetts was the only state that had a population decline — down a slight 3,800 people to 6.41 million. Demographers speculated it could have been caused by an exodus of people escaping rising costs in the Boston area.

The bureau estimated North Dakota gained population — 966 people — for the first time since at least 2000. The 2004 population was 634,366.

There also has been small but steady growth in Montana and Wyoming, probably due in part to people seeking to leave urban settings for a small-town lifestyle, said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

“Put yourself in someone’s shoes living in Los Angeles,” said Marty Bakken, a veteran of the fast-growing real-estate market around Bozeman, Mont. “If they can make a living and provide for their family here, they’re probably going to do it.”