This excerpt from "Mining in Northern Wisconsin" (Wisconsin Historical Society) helps to explain Ashland County's population decline.
During the last decades of the 19th century, the timber industry remained an important part of the economy of northern Wisconsin and helped to offset the economic impact of the declining mines. But the northern forests were leveled by the disastrous practice of clear-cutting, and despite extensive efforts to settle new immigrants on the so-called cutover lands, small farms, poor soil, and a short growing season conspired to keep agricultural productivity low. Northern Wisconsin did not fully recover from the effects of the mining boom and bust until the rise of tourism in the 20th century.
U.S. Census Bureau
Ashland County Comprehensive Plan: 2006 to 2025 Policy Document. (Adopted by County Board on November 29, 2006)
Vierbicher telling the county what it wants to hear. As a whole, Ashland County’s population base has grown in recent years but at a relatively slow pace compared to the statewide growth rate. Between 1990 and 2000, 559 residents* were added countywide. Three towns (Agenda, Jacobs, and Shanagolden) and the three municipalities (Ashland, Butternut, and Mellen) experienced a net population loss during this time period.
Over the next 20 years, all of the jurisdictions would like to experience a positive and sustainable growth rate. Some local jurisdictions need to do very little to meet their population goals given their comparative advantage in terms of housing market demand. Most communities though will need to be proactive and perhaps team with other like-minded jurisdictions in the immediate area to promote greater economic development along with residential development.
*Unfortunately, the positive growth rate was not sustainable. Ashland County lost 709 residents between 2000 and 2010, and another estimated 314 since then. I'm sure the county would like to have retained them all.
A closer look at Adams County. (4/3/2015)
The majority of Wisconsin counties have lost population since 2010. (3/28/2016)
Where Wisconsin's population growth is taking place (2010-2015). (3/27/2016)
Dane County: Wisconsin's population growth engine. (3/27/2016)
U.S. Census Bureau population estimates: Nearly half of Wisconsin counties lose population. (3/27/2016)
Wisconsin population projections, 2010-2040: Top 10 counties by % decline and growth. (5/14/2015)
Top 10 Wisconsin Counties by Percentage of Population Growth, Loss (2010-2014). (3/27/2015)
Wiscousin counties: Population 65 and older. (10/24/2014)
Wisconsin trivia: What was Wisconsin's 2nd-largest city in 1910? (/9/1/2014)
Dane County tallies 39% of state's population growth since 2010. (3/27/2014)
2012 U.S. Census population estimates: More gains than losses among Wisconsin's largest communities. (5/28/2013)