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Tracking Prey In The Desert

Border patrol uses ancient methods to track down smugglers

When they began 40 years ago, agents tracked on foot and horseback. (Courtesy Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement) When they began 40 years ago, agents tracked on foot and horseback. (Courtesy Homeland Security/Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

By: Lee Allen, Special to

NORTHERN SONORAN DESERT, Ariz. -- Wilderness, especially that found in desolate deserts, holds answers to more questions than we have yet learned to ask.

And the Northern Sonoran Desert along the U.S./Mexico border in southwest Arizona represents one of those enigmas -- “a flaming globe and a symbol of strength,” according to naturalist Edward Abbey.

“The desert is cruel, inhuman, motionless and emotionless, representing a harsh reality unseen by the masses, a harshness that makes it more alluring, more baffling, and more fascinating,” Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire. The desert freezes in winter, boils in summer (up to 120 degrees), and provides minimal rainfall (under 10 inches annually).

The sun beats down relentlessly as dust storms whip up grains of desert turf that sandpaper all that stands. The Sonoran desert is also a place where “everything either sticks, stings, stabs, or stinks,” Abbey writes.

And yet the Native American law enforcement team known as The Shadow Wolves call this formidable arena their home, their office and their playground.

“Things are wide open out there,” admitted one law enforcement officer.

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Border patrol uses ancient methods to track down smugglers

Nearly half the illegal narcotics bought by Americans each year comes through Mexico and much of the bulkier marijuana component makes its way across the international boundary through the Tohono O’odham Nation.

The number of smuggler apprehensions attest to the continual supply of transporters, or “mules,” willing to strap a 50-pound bale on their back and take on the dangers of the desert.

One of those dangers is the Shadow Wolf team of trackers who utilize centuries-old skills to find and arrest the bad guys.

“We don’t catch smugglers every day, but the ones that get away just make us want to catch them even more,” said veteran tracker David Scout, a Lakota Sioux. Patrol members grew up comfortable with nature and learning how to read the subtle messages provided within it. Shadow Wolves discovered from their elders that it was possible to see the invisible and hear the silent things in the desert.

“We used basic tracking skills to round up our horses and hunt for food, and those skills can be applied to our jobs as patrol officers,” Scout said.

Shadow Wolf John Bothof, a Sioux tribal member, likes to tell the story about one of the original Native trackers who epitomized the process of stealth.

“He was so good he could sneak into a smugglers’ throw-down camp when the bad guys were sleeping, survey the scene, and come back out and tell waiting law enforcement officers where everyone was sleeping and where the dope was stacked,” he said. “He got the nickname of Shadow Man because he could become a part of the scene without being detected and that title morphed into The Shadow Wolves.”

There’s a lot of similarity in tracking and stalking two-legged and four-legged prey, and speed is at the top of the list. Both smugglers and wildlife key in on movement and if they see something move that doesn’t look right, they’re gone.

Best advice here is to move slowly, no more than a couple of steps at a time, before standing still and intimately observing the area surrounding you.

“When we track, we pick up a string,” explains tracker school instructor Tom Brown, Jr. “At the far end of the string a being is moving, existing, still connected to the track we gaze on … movement that is still contained in the track … along with the smallest of details that helps us become the very prey we track.”

Animals have very sensitive hearing and a human footfall signals danger, so it’s a challenge to mask the cadence of footsteps via stealth. Natives used to hunt game by fox walking, emulating how a fox would stalk its prey by taking slow, totally silent, deliberate steps with precise foot placement, toes leading before the heel strike.

Little stalking cover is available in the desert, so the recommendation of stalking with clothing that blends into the natural background is a sound one. Shadow Wolves use desert camo in earth tones.

Remaining unseen is as important as remaining unheard. Use any advantage you have to stay hidden from full view -- stay below a ridgeline and use surrounding vegetation and natural shadows to cover your approach.

Smugglers carrying heavy packs tend to leave footprints in the pristine desert floor. To slow down the lawmen, many wear carpet booties, a swatch of rug that turns shoe prints into tiny scuff marks and makes the tracking process that much harder.

Whether a human or an animal broke a branch in their travels, it’s an important clue.

“If it’s still attached, life is flowing through it,” says Tohono O’odham Shadow Wolf Kevin Carlos. “What I look for is the wilting process of branches broken completely off. If the break happened recently, I can squeeze the branch and it will still be pliable and will bounce back.

“Later that day, it will take a lot longer to return to shape and by tomorrow, it will crumble, giving me an idea of the aging process and whether or not the trail is fresh.”

Tony Nester of Ancient Pathways, although non-Indian, runs a school that teaches indigenous methods to Border Patrol officers.

“The Golden Rule of tracking is to always keep footprints between you and the sun,” he said. “You can’t believe how critical this can be in picking out detail and staying on the trail of whatever … or whomever … you’re pursuing.

“Try to avoid deciphering an entire story from a single track. That works well in Hollywood films, but not on a hunt. Gather information from a series of tracks looking for the direction of travel and the gait-pattern as strides decrease because of fatigue or wariness.

“And don’t forget geography, the big picture surrounding you. Study the terrain of what’s ahead, a canyon or a waterhole, to determine where your quarry would most likely go.”

And, the tracking teacher said, don’t forget that tracks are only half of the story.

“There are broken twigs, crumpled vegetation, scrape marks, bedding areas and scat,” he said. “As a trail detective, you should be putting all of this together to formulate a theory on where your quarry might be headed. It’s about putting time in on the trail and staring at the ground to decipher clues. Tracking isn’t mysticism, its science.”

If your quarry is in the ungulate family, nobody knows those secrets better than Jim Heffelfinger, author of Deer of the Southwest.

“Deer look for food, water, and cover, so find a hill, park your butt, and get out the glasses looking for track, trails, or movement,” Heffelfinger said. “The more knowledge hunters have about their quarry and their likes and dislikes, the better the odds of a successful hunt.”

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