OROVILLE, WASH. — Astride sturdy mustangs Okanogan and Spurs, U.S. Border Patrol agents Darrel Williams and Justin Hefker ride along a ridgeline above the Similkameen River Valley.
The only sound is the gentle plodding of the horses' large hooves -- and an occasional snort -- as they move through the pine forest just east of Washington state's Pasayten Wilderness Area with a sure-footedness that makes them a perfect fit for scaling the steep hillsides along the border with British Columbia.
Williams and Hefker, both senior patrol agents, have added old-fashioned horse wrangling to their list of skills, riding once-feral mustangs as they patrol areas where the agency's boats, snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles and high-horsepower patrol vehicles can't go.
The mustangs are among a dozen that the Border Patrol's Spokane Sector has bought to patrol a 308-mile section of the U.S.-Canadian border from the crest of the Cascade Range in Washington state to the Continental Divide in Montana.
The Border Patrol, a division of the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection, routinely uses horses on the southern border with Mexico.
But the dozen mustangs owned by the patrol's Spokane Sector are the first of that breed used to watch the northern border, said Agent Lee Pinkerton, assistant chief of the section of border that runs from the crest of Washington's Cascade Range to the Continental Divide in the Montana Rockies.
The Border Patrol's "Operation Noble Mustang" adopts horses from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's wild horse and burro program, blending today's technology with yesterday's law -enforcement traditions, the agency said..
On this day, Richard Graham, agent-in-charge of the Border Patrol station in Oroville, rides along as his agents patrol a small section of the border. The avid horseman sings the praises of mustangs and their ability to patrol the border with minimal environmental damage.
In the valley below, aspen, cottonwoods and a few pine flank the river that flows into the U.S. from Canada. Along the river is a Prohibition-era dirt "whiskey trail" that shows recent activity from modern smugglers bringing different contraband -- most likely potent "B.C. Bud" marijuana -- from Canada.
"The reason we went with the horses was to get into those hard-to-reach areas," Pinkerton said. "We can really reach out to some of these remote locations, if nothing else, to see if there is something out there."
The breed's big bones and large hooves give them a sure-footedness that makes them perfect for scaling the steep hillsides and thick forests along the border, he said. They also have less of an effect on the fragile wilderness ground than motorized vehicles, he said.
"These horses are truly American. They are a product that's unique to the United States, and we are putting them in a position to help us protect the U.S.," Pinkerton said, "There's something inherently right in doing that."
The patrol contracts with local ranchers to house and feed the animals. Because they are owned by the government, the agency saves money it formerly spent to lease horses from local ranchers, Pinkerton said.
A year ago, the mustangs -- descendants of horses brought by Spanish conquistadors and ridden by American Indians, cavalry soldiers and cowboys -- ran wild in great herds across the West's vast expanses. They were rounded up in the BLM wild-horse adoption program, broken to saddles by inmate wranglers at a Colorado prison, then sent to the Border Patrol's Colville station in Washington state for final training.
Graham's station is responsible for an 80-mile stretch of border that includes about 50 miles of the vast Pasayten Wilderness Area, a 529,477-acre tract where motorized vehicles are prohibited and there are few, if any, roads.
Along the Spokane sector, agents patrol the smaller Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area of northeastern Washington, as well as Montana's Glacier National Park where it abuts Canada's Waterton Lakes National Park.
Graham's station has four mustangs as well as three mules and a handful of horses leased from local ranches for their patrols. Others are assigned to stations in Metaline Falls and Curlew in Washington state, as well as Whitefish, Mont.
Law-enforcement aircraft have limited use in the wild, Pinkerton said. It is difficult to see people hiding beneath the tree canopy, and wilderness laws limit how low aircraft can fly, he said.
"Our biggest successes are going to be on the ground," Pinkerton said, noting that the mustang program blends traditional law-enforcement techniques with high-tech gadgets.
"We're going back to the 1800s style of doing this because it is successful," he said. "On the ground, a horse is going to be the best mode of transportation in those areas."
The mustangs and their wranglers provide surveillance of large areas not covered by remotely operated cameras and motion detectors that dot the cleared areas of the border, Pinkerton said.