Tom Smart,
Salt Lake City downtown and skyline, Aug. 10, 2015, in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah was among the fastest-growing states in the country this year, thanks primarily to its high birth rate, according to data released by the U.S. Census.

The state's population was 2.96 million people at the report's July deadline, and state counts show that number hit the milestone of 3 million a few months later.

The census numbers show Utah's population grew 1.7 percent between July 2014 and July 2015, an increase from last year that made Utah the seventh fastest-growing state in the country, including the District of Columbia.

Most of Utah's growth came from new babies. While the birth rate has dropped in the years since the recession hit, it's still the highest in the country at 17.3 births per thousand women, the report released Tuesday shows.

The natural increase of more births than deaths accounted for 70 percent of the state's growth in 2015, something that makes Utah different from other fast-growing states with population increases powered by people moving in.

Long-standing immigration hubs like Texas and Florida are starting to see increases in migration rates after a post-recession lull, said Pam Perlich, director of demographic research and the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

The fastest-growing state in the country this year was again North Dakota, which welcomed thousands of new residents coming to take jobs in the state's booming oil industry. It was followed by Colorado, the District of Columbia, Nevada, Florida and Texas, according to the new census data.

In Colorado, for example, about 70 percent of the growth came from people moving in. In Utah, that portion was 30 percent.

The fact that other states are filling up with people moving in is a good sign for the economy, said Perlich. "The global financial crisis and recession was really keeping people hunkered down in place," she said.

It's not yet clear whether that trend could extend to Utah, but better economic times could also help increase the state's birth rate by allowing more people to afford kids.

Gov. Gary Herbert cheered the news on Wednesday, lauding the state's healthy economy and its status as the youngest state in the country.