ORIENT, Wash. – Minutes after Capt. Gary Roman slipped a set of spurs over his boots, a rancher pulled up, hauling a trailer full of the latest weapons in the U.S. Border Patrol's lookout for drug smugglers, illegal aliens and terrorists: horses.
Since April, the Spokane sector of the Border Patrol has been using horse patrols along the 309-mile stretch of border it oversees between Montana's Rocky Mountains and the eastern slopes of Washington's Cascades — a thickly forested expanse that includes some of the roughest terrain in the country.
With help from horses, the agency is now able to keep watch on mountains and canyons once inaccessible to pickups, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.
"You think horses and you think that's what we used 75 years ago," Roman said, heaving a leather saddle atop a gelding. "For one thing, they're quiet. They're also faster than an agent on foot, and they're going to let you know somebody is out there long before you would know it."
All seven Border Patrol stations in the Spokane sector now deploy regular horse patrols, making it the only sector along the northern border that uses horses at each of its stations, said Lonnie Moore, an agency spokesman.
Sector Chief Robert Harris has also recently equipped each of the stations with specially trained human-tracking dogs.
Although the Border Patrol's top priority is to catch terrorists, much of the Spokane sector's work involves stopping the smuggling of British Columbia-grown marijuana and the northbound trafficking of cocaine.
In fiscal year 2005, the U.S. Border Patrol made 7,342 apprehensions along the border with Canada, compared with 1.2 million apprehensions along the Mexican border, said Lonnie Moore, an agency spokesman.
However, many experts consider the largely open northern border to be a more likely point of passage for suspected terrorists.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Border Patrol has tripled the number of agents posted in the Spokane sector, Moore said. Although the agents are sometimes seen working with their drug dogs at highway border stations, most of their work involves policing the long stretches of the 49th parallel between stations.
The increase in agents has made it tougher on smugglers, who have had to find new methods to carry their drugs over the border, Roman said, leading the patrol of agents on horses up a steep, narrow path one recent day. "We hit them hard with vehicles, then with boats. Now they're using helicopters and planes to get over us."
The horse patrols in the area haven't yet resulted in any arrests, but agents are learning new trails and are able to keep a better watch on possible routes, agent Allen Foraker said. "We're turning in some good intel because of the areas we're now accessing."
Foraker spends most of his time on patrol staring at the ground, looking for footprints, broken brush, cigarette butts or tiny flecks of surveyor's tape.
Agents follow even the faintest of clues. If the trail is hot and it leads across the border, they use a shared radio frequency to call for help from their counterparts with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Border Patrol agents have also begun handing out refrigerator magnets with a telephone tip hotline to people living near the border. There's already been at least one drug seizure made from a magnet call, Roman said.
Agents also chat with hikers or hunters. "We talk to everybody," Foraker said. "Generally, within two minutes we know if they belong in this country."
Backcountry drug trafficking has slowed since the 9/11 buildup of agents, Foraker said. Smugglers have been forced deeper into the backcountry and onto lesser-used trails. One of the benefits of the horse patrols, Foraker said, is to help agents learn every square foot of their patrol area and keep up with the smugglers.
President Bush is promoting a plan to hire up to 6,000 new agents in coming years. Before any get a shot at riding horses through the wilds of the Northwest, they'll have to learn Spanish and begin their careers with a stint along the busy border with Mexico.