Agents Patrol U.S.-Canadian Border on Horseback

The U.S. Border Patrol's newest weapon against drug-smugglers and terrorists is old-fashioned: the horse. Agents on horseback keep watch along some of the roughest and most remote terrain along the U.S.-Canadian border. The mounted patrols are unique to the West; they stretch from Washington state to Montana.

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After 9/11, a 300 mile stretch along the Canadian border came under scrutiny as a possible entry point for terrorists. But up there, high-tech surveillance goes only so far. In a new program, the U.S. Border Patrol relies on an old-fashioned kind of horsepower to get around, the kind with four legs and a saddle.

Elizabeth Wynne Johnson joined agents for a ride in the far reaches of Washington State.

ELIZABETH WYNNE JOHNSON reporting:

In these parts, a U.S. border agent gets ready for work by running a stiff brush along the withers of his partner, in this case a chestnut quarter horse named Gus.

Mr. LEE FITZPATRICK (Agent, U.S. Border Patrol): All right, Gus, you ready for a good day?

My name's Lee Fitzpatrick, Curlew Station, and we are saddling up and getting ready to ride a ridge that overlooks the international boundary.

JOHNSON: Since 9/11, the U.S. Border Patrol has beefed up surveillance along the Canadian border. As it gets harder to slip through in well-populated areas, Fitzpatrick thinks more people will try their luck in the backcountry.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: A few minutes of field riding, and then we'll start our climb.

JOHNSON: Open field soon gives way to dense woods.

(Soundbite of branches snapping)

JOHNSON: Fitzpatrick studies the trail for footprints and other signs of illegal crossers. He also keeps one eye open for low-hanging branches.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: The rocks are pretty jagged on the tops of these hills. This is where you'd get a flat tire with an ATV or a regular Jeep or a truck. Your horse can get you back in there. It doesn't disturb the land.

(Soundbite of horse neighing)

JOHNSON: It's also a lot stealthier.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: Shh, shh, easy.

JOHNSON: And the horse is quite literally an extra set of eyes and ears.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: You'll see their ears actually perk and go towards any number of things. They'll kind of give you a little heads up to things that are around you.

JOHNSON: The northern border is regarded as a possible weak spot for terrorists, but day to day, most of the action is in the trafficking of Canada's potent marijuana specialty, B.C. Bud. This is a change of pace for Fitzpatrick, a veteran of the busy Arizona border. There, hardly an hour, much less a whole day, goes by without a chase. Up here, the mounted patrols have yet to make a single arrest. But Fitzpatrick insists no arrests doesn't mean no results.

Mr. FITZPATRICK: You've got to be patient. A lot of what we do here on the northern border here with horses is gather our intel up.

JOHNSON: Mostly that means chatting up the locals, something Fitzpatrick finds a lot easier to do when he's passing through on horseback. We stop near the top of Washington's Graphite Mountain. From here it's a clear view over Canada's Rock Creek Canyon. Fitzpatrick's partner, Border Agent Steve Kartchner, says the mounted patrols are helping, but he also knows they're in a game where the rules are changing.

Mr. STEVE KARTCHNER (U.S. Border Patrol): Now that we're here in this area, the smugglers aren't having such an easy time. They're getting more desperate, so they're using more desperate measures. Our intelligence tells us that they're now starting to carry weapons and possibly looking to protect their loads by that means.

(Soundbite of horses walking)

JOHNSON: So he swings back up in the saddle, being careful not to snag a leg on any of his own weapons. There's the semi-automatic handgun and the shotgun he carries just in case they run into a grizzly instead of a smuggler or a terrorist.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Wynne Johnson.

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