No backup on the Northern border

A rural county is saddled with international responsibility.

  • Sheriff Donna Matoon, who, with 11 deputies, covers the nearly 2,000 square miles of Toole County, Montana.

    Larry Beckner
  • The new port of entry facility at Sweetgrass, built and staffed with post-9/11 federal dollars.

    Larry Beckner

It's 10 degrees below zero in windblown Toole County, Mont. Thirty-four miles south of the longest non-militarized border in the world, the county seat of Shelby serves as the last stop for all international traffic heading for the Sweetgrass Port of Entry and the snowy wheatland flats of southern Alberta. The Toole County Public Safety Center, an unobtrusive concrete building, huddles at the bottom of a treeless hill across the railroad tracks from the center of town. Inside, two-term Sheriff Donna Matoon sits in a small, uninsulated corner office across from Undersheriff Mike Lamey. On the wall between them hangs a wooden sign that wryly proclaims: "Good Morning, Let The Stress Begin!"

With a jurisdiction of almost 2,000 square miles and only 11 deputies to cover it, Matoon says the stress is real: "It's hard when you're trying to put the budget together and fuel's over $4 a gallon in the summer." Toole County's economy increasingly relies on the energy industry and its rough-and-tumble army of temporary workers. At the same time, Matoon's force must deal with 50 miles of the U.S.-Canada border, which is twice as long as the U.S.-Mexico border but handled by just a tenth of the federal personnel. Every day across the West, rural county sheriffs face tough challenges. But it gets even more difficult when you have to cope with an international border and a large transient population.

The 130 agents employed by the Havre Sector of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, which includes Toole County, are concentrated largely at Sweetgrass. That leaves some wide-open sections of border relatively unguarded between Sweetgrass and ports in neighboring counties. Such gaps cause endless anxiety for federal agents and rural deputies charged with apprehending drug smugglers, port runners and border jumpers, not to mention potential terrorists. It doesn't help that Matoon's office is perennially understaffed, overworked and underpaid.

Sheriff Matoon, a tough 26-year law enforcement veteran with a high school education, has held just about every job in the department and is the only female law enforcement officer in the history of the county. She sits easily in her chair, clad in blue jeans and a black fleece jacket emblazoned with the sheriff's emblem. Her closely cropped black hair is all business, but she retains a distinctly Western grace that matches her slow, considered tone of voice. Outside of Shelby, Toole County has less than one person per square mile, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of law enforcement challenges.

Take the local energy boom, for example. Each summer, approximately 150 to 200 seasonal construction workers show up to build the 210-megawatt, 140-turbine Glacier Wind Farm -- Montana's largest -- in Toole County. Many of these workers congregate in downtown Shelby seven nights a week, May through September. "And what happens when you get young, outdoorsy men who go toss a few back?" Lamey asks rhetorically. In this case, it's a 42 percent increase in simple assaults, or those in which the victim suffers minor injuries, from from the summer of 2007 to the summer of 2008. "It got to the point where every Friday and Saturday night we would have at least one assault down at the bars," he says. "The other nights were just the pushing and shoving nights," Matoon adds with a smile. "It was literally seven days a week for four months."

The energy workers aren't the only transient population. Some 450,000 trucks and 1.3 million travelers crisscross Toole County annually on the interstate, the Amtrak railway, and U.S. Highway 2, most of them headed to and from Canada. With such a high volume of traffic, alcohol violations are a tiresome routine here. The expansive Town Pump service station and restaurant in Shelby is the first or last stop in the U.S. for many travelers, which makes it a center of activity for the local deputies as well. They respond to calls on everything from fuel thefts to domestic disputes between truckers and their girlfriends. Within the last couple of years, they've intervened twice to help suicidal drivers barricaded in the cabins of their semi-trailers. Just recently, they found 14 grams of crack cocaine in the men's restroom.

Matoon is constantly struggling to hire and keep the officers she needs. A post-9/11 infusion of federal dollars has produced a brand-new 100,000-square-foot customs and Border Patrol facility in Sweetgrass with many staffing needs. Because the Border Patrol has trouble retaining employees in the sub-zero winters of northern Montana, the agency has begun hiring locals at a starting salary of between $36,000 and $46,000, rising to $70,000 in year three. Toole County deputies, in comparison, start at around $31,000. Consequently, many of Matoon's more experienced staffers have been lured away by federal agencies, and the number of applicants for open positions at the department has declined from 20 to 30 in years past, to 10 or fewer in recent years. "I don't blame them," says Matoon. "When you've got a wife and two or three kids, you can't support that family on 14 bucks an hour."

High Country News Classifieds