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Blackfeet Tribe patrols border with limited resources, funds

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By Martin J. Kidston -- Independent Record

CUT BANK, Mont. (AP) - When Robert DesRosier looks north into Canada and east toward the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, he admits that if he were a smuggler, or perhaps a terrorist, he would take advantage of the reservation's lack of security.

DesRosier is one of just two tribal members working to secure the reservation's 65 miles of international border. It's a daunting task and one DesRosier says goes largely unsupported by the federal government.

''The things that come through here could affect the rest of the nation,'' he said after a scouting flight over the border. ''But one of the things that affects us the most with Homeland Security is that we don't often get the money to operate or maintain a good border protection program.''

DesRosier took on the Blackfeet Nation's Homeland Security mission one week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He and his partner - a Blackfeet man who asked the Independent Record that his name not be used - represent the sum total of the reservation's effort to secure the border.

The program has made progress since its inception. Relationships have been forged with nearby law enforcement agencies, including the Glacier County Sheriff's Department and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Even the Blackfeet Tribal Council supports the mission, helping out in a pinch if DesRosier needs it.

But DesRosier admits that his program has taken small steps backward. It hasn't grown much during the past six years and that leaves him frustrated. What's more, he said, it continues to struggle for funding.

''We'd like to have a full-time program that puts Blackfeet people to work on the northern border,'' he said. ''I'd like to see 10 to 12 people who are full-time employees working Homeland Security for the Blackfeet Nation. I'd like to do rotating shifts, and that means vehicles and equipment.''

DesRosier and his partner, along with a host of American Indian agents from southern Arizona, have gathered in Cut Bank to fly the border with a drug interdiction pilot from the Montana National Guard. Doing so, DesRosier hopes, will reveal the illegal crossing points that lie invisible to those on the ground.

Knowing where the roads and trails lie will help his team devise a better plan, one he may deploy with limited manpower.

''It doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that funding isn't going to the reservations like it is to the rest of the country,'' he said. ''If I was a smuggler, I certainly wouldn't go through the Port of Sweetgrass or the Port of Piegan. It's common sense. The smugglers aren't dumb. They know what's going on.''

DesRosier's words mirror those spoken by Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera two weeks earlier. The 14 ports of entry dotting Montana's northern tier are well-secured. But the 545 miles between them are lonely, open miles with only farmers and a handful of Border Patrol agents keeping watch.

''Putting myself in the shoes of doing criminal activity, it's a toss-up whether I'd try to cross at a busy station or at a location with limited personnel,'' Szudera said at his Havre office. ''I personally would take the risk of doing it in a location with a smaller amount of traffic.''

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That's what has DesRosier concerned. Aside from the weather and expansive terrain, there's little to stop smugglers and illegal aliens from crossing the reservation and reaching the highway, where they may disappear into the Montana population.

Smugglers have been known to fly drugs across the border and drop them for collection. Others move on four-wheelers or on foot. They set their package by a trail or road, marking it in some unsuspecting way for future collection. In land this big and rugged, catching them, says one Native agent, is a game of luck, good intelligence and planning.

''We've seen increased activity on the border,'' the agent said, shaking his head. ''You'll see roads, illegal crossings on the border. If somebody wanted to get across the international boundary bad enough to go around a port of entry, it usually means there's something on their mind.''

DesRosier's team has won small victories in securing funding for border security, mainly a small grant from the Department of Justice and funds for two-way radios. Still, he says, the tribe remains at a disadvantage due to the way Homeland Security funding is distributed.

For starters, he said, the tribe must apply for money at the state level while the state, in contrast, gets money directly from the federal government. There's no money for tribal salaries, nothing in the tribal budget to pay personnel to actively patrol the border or do Homeland Security work.

''We've always maintained that we need to have a funding path in place directly to the federal government,'' he said. ''Not to say that we're going to be competing with the states. But the federal government must recognize Indian country's needs when it comes to Homeland Security. We don't think they adequately address that now.''

As a result, DesRosier fears that smugglers and illegal aliens who want to cross the international border will do so on the reservation.

Others agree. Up here, tucked against the rise of Glacier National Park, law enforcement is thin at best. What officers there are keep busy with crisis management. As DesRosier puts it, tribal police don't even have time to work traffic.

''I think the criminal element will target a reservation because there's not adequate law enforcement,'' he said.

During his flight, DesRosier marked the GPS coordinates of each illegal crossing discovered below. They found three that morning. Back at base, he and his men gathered around a contour map of north central Montana, marking the crossings on the map.

These, DesRosier said, are the places he'll begin watching. He'll take to a secret vantage high in the hills to do so - one that lends an expansive view of the border.

While DesRosier remains hopeful that funding will someday come his way, he knows how the game is played. He admits that the northern border is nothing like the southern border, at least when it comes to the level of activity streaming across it. He called the difference significant and one he can't compete with.

Still, he wants to spread the word to smugglers and illegal aliens - if you're looking to enter the United States through Montana, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation isn't the place to do it.

''By far the most important thing to me is the Homeland Security mission,'' DesRosier said. ''It's important for the Blackfeet Nation that we maintain our identity as far as our northern border. We're one of the most unique tribes in the nation because we have 65 miles of international border. We try to remain very observant.''