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By Jon Bonné
msnbc.com

This story was originally published in Sept. 2002.

First, there are the horses. They don’t ride horses all the time, but sometimes it’s the only real way to get into the back country. With guns and badges fastened to their belts, the lawmen who patrol the northern border here evoke the mystique of the Old West even as they rely on modern technology to hunt a distinctly modern threat. In the hills of far northwest Montana, there’s lots of back country — and lots of worry about the vast open spaces.

Border Patrol agent in charge Jerry Gillies and his companions from the Customs Service, the Forest Service and local sheriffs’ offices compose a unique, 3-year-old Northern Border task force in Montana. All along the northern border, law enforcement agencies lend each other a hand, but here they actually take on each other’s duties. Their agencies’ mandates are often different, but common goals — often a hunt for illegal drugs, now joined with a vigilant watch for terrorists — have made their efforts a template for the new federal mission to protect Americans at home.

“Before 9/11, we never thought about terrorists coming across the border,” says Forest Service special agent Jay Deist. “Now it’s a constant thought.”

Task force members allowed MSNBC.com an exclusive look at one of their annual forays up to the border, when its leaders camp out for several days to ride, walk and drive the ground they consider most at risk from intruders.

Understanding the land is crucial. A lone agent in Gillies’ offices — they’ve almost always had to work alone — might patrol 40 miles of border in the course of a single day, driving nearly 250 miles overland to reach it all. Amid dense forests and 7,000-foot mountains, they can check just a handful of key patrol areas each day.

None of the members has a specific role to target terrorists: The Border Patrol hunts those exploiting immigration law; Customs is interested in merchandise being smuggled in either direction; the Forest Service pursues crimes that occur on its land; and the sheriff wants to keep out criminals who operate in his back yard.

But if fears of illegal entry have become more acute than ever, the daily routine hasn’t changed. As they have for years, task force members rely on intelligence and intuition to track suspects across the wild miles. They work through Montana’s hot summers and snowy winters — trying to stop whatever “bad guys,” as they simply call them, who come along.

Tuesday, 3 p.m.
Deist and U.S. Customs agent-in-charge Johnny Walker bring out horses for a quick foray to the border, all the while explaining the task force’s value. The two-hour ride is hardly a backcountry haul, but Deist’s trained mountain horses help pick out the rocky trail. (When he’s not investigating, Deist runs a game farm in Kalispell, training everything from grizzly bears to snowshoe hares.) The horses usually appear for multiday trips — perhaps to remote sites they visit when tracking suspects through the Flathead and Kootenai National Forests — but they seem happy to take us for a quick tour along the riverbank.

The two men are old friends and colleagues, and their solid understanding of each others’ duties — in addition to broad federal jurisdiction to pursue terror and drug charges — allow them to effortlessly bridge what are often notable gaps between government agencies.

“You’ve got to have ground troops, so to speak, in this war,” Walker says later. “Nothing is going to take the place of a dedicated force of law enforcement officers who are out there, no matter what technology you have.”

Even with hundreds more Border Patrol agents headed north, task force members frankly admit gaps will remain. A single patrol office often catches 130 or more people a year — and agents can often apprehend six to 10 suspects a month in a single crossing spot. “We’d be lucky to get 8 percent, 10 percent,” says Lincoln County Sheriff Daryl Anderson.

Wednesday, 10 a.m.
“He’s going that way,” Gillies says, pointing toward a downed tree. “Here’s his boot track right here, and if he’s going that way, he’s going to hit the log.”

He and Border Patrol agent Shane Baker are working a presumed intruder’s trail, slowly pacing through underbrush near the Yaak River. This is the most fundamental of Border Patrol skills, an ability to read the ground for details — “cutting sign,” as they call it — and find subtle, often barely visible markers that give away someone else’s presence.

It’s midmorning, and the two agents have hiked a couple miles into woods just shy of the border to retrace a trail they found after being tipped off the night before.

They’re confident someone has crossed, so they spend the better part of an hour pacing the trail, closely examining boot prints, looking for newly cracked twigs and matted grass. Fresh tracks atop older horseshoe prints give away a recent presence. Gillies and Baker have dueling theories.

“He’s taking the dirt and digging it this way,” Gillies says, pointing southward, “which means” — he points north — “he’s going that way.”

“That’s a good argument,” Baker admits.

A little while later, they come upon a boot outline with a diamond-shaped mark. Gillies takes out paper and diagrams it. Baker’s German shepherd — trained to sniff out four types of drugs as well as human scents — runs up ahead impatiently as the men hunch over the imprinted dirt.

Border Patrol Agents Shane Baker, left, and Jerry Gillies search for tracks along a trail in northwest Montana that leads out of Canada .
They move ahead slowly, looking over a patch of bog that turns up decent prints but nothing conclusive.

“I think he’s northbound,” Gillies says. “Now, what he’s doing up there I don’t know. But he knows the trail.”

Such are the Patrol’s core talents. Agents are taught tracking skills once used by tribal hunters, along with an array of wilderness skills, law training and Spanish language courses. Since its inception in 1924, the Patrol has always taken an odd mix of jobs — riding the border on horses and boats, tasked with everything from stopping smuggled Chinese immigrants to nabbing rumrunners. Early agents had to provide their own weapons and horses — and Deist still offers his own animals to patrol agents working a trail.

Even with a dizzying array of tools at their disposal — from aircraft with infrared radar to GPS positioning computers — these old-fashioned ground skills may remain their most important assets.

Agents here must move deftly but quietly — not just because of bad guys but also to keep local residents happy and safe. Trust is crucial in a quiet corner of the nation where the few drivers you’ll pass offer as greeting a casual flick of the wrist from the steering wheel as they pass by.

Lincoln County Sheriff Daryl Anderson
More to the point, the task force keeps company in some corners where the federal government hasn’t often been welcome. Libby, Mont., where Anderson runs his office, is also home to Project 56, right-wing radicals who hope to make Lincoln County a “U.N.-free zone.” Anderson describes them with bemusement and frustration: They’re “boistrous,” he says, but generally leave him be.

Still, it’s a reminder that many folks who’ve moved up here to within a crow’s flight of the Continental Divide have chosen this place so they can be left very much alone.

Wednesday, 6 p.m.
Ninety miles long, Lake Koocanusa runs south from Canada along the western edge of the Tobacco Valley, bisecting the task force’s jurisdiction. Before 1975, the lake was actually the Kootenai River, but one of the last massive Western reclamation projects, the Libby Dam, turned it into the seventh-largest reservoir in the nation.

A wind kicks along the lake’s steep banks. Gillies stands on a bluff, binoculars out, watching a small motorboat putter across the borderline. It stops just inside the United States. “It looks like they’re going waterskiing, but it’s not a good day for waterskiing.” he says. “We’ll give them a few more minutes and see what they’re going to do.”

From a bluff overlooking Lake Koocanusa, Border Patrol agent Jerry Gillies watches a motorboat cross into the United States.
They soon turn back, but with the only border marker a slim cutline on either shore, boaters often won’t even realize they’ve crossed the border. It’s easy enough to miss someone slipping off the side of a boat or a furtive landing on the wrong side of the boundary. Even with its own fleet of small craft and the Coast Guard to lend a hand, border agents have plenty to keep them busy on dry land.

For Gillies, it’s a beautiful office: The lake shimmers in the quiet of golden hour, thick forests stretching along the far bank and dry grass fields ribboning into the valley. But the specter of a threat is never far off — the pristine setting a reminder to agents that just one bad guy who gets away could have a potentially lethal impact.

Wednesday, just past dusk
Back in his truck, driving east toward his Whitefish, Mont., office, Gillies describes the training regimen for new patrol arrivals. It’s not just walking the land and learning its secrets. New agents must learn search-and-rescue techniques, avalanche safety and survival skills. Days are long and exhausting — an exercise in endurance.

With Gillies, Deist and Walker nearing retirement, and Anderson up for reelection in the fall, there’s a wistful note in the late August air — and a hint of eagerness for new blood to arrive. Their jobs are a thrill, but a wearying one nonetheless.

Despite two hikes earlier that day along the riverside trail, neither Baker nor Gillies find their guy. They just file away another few tidbits of information, perhaps containing a minute detail that will bring them success next time.

Gillies’ truck radio crackles. Baker reports in from the far end of the patrol zone, near the Idaho border: “All quiet on the Western front.”

Gillies picks up the microphone, grins and bids him a good night.

© 2013 msnbc.com Reprints

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