Law enforcement took control of the largest Dakota Access pipeline protest camp Thursday, arresting or moving the few dozen people who had remained in the mud and snow in one of the largest environmental protests in American history.
"At 2:09 p.m., Oceti Sakowin protest camp was completely cleared by law enforcement!" the Morton County Sheriff's Office wrote on its Facebook page, referring to the name protesters gave the camp just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's reservation in North Dakota.
Later, law enforcement, with the aid of National Guard troops, also began clearing the smaller Rosebud camp, located across the Cannonball River. There were no reports of broad confrontations with law enforcement, though some people could be seen on live-stream videos being wrestled to the ground and handcuffed.
At least 30 people had been arrested by early afternoon, but many others fled toward a third camp, Sacred Stone, the original protest site established 10 months ago. The camp was set up on private land by a handful of people from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and others who have argued that the $3.8-billion, 1,170-mile pipeline threatens the tribe's water supply and sacred cultural sites.
The pipeline would carry oil from the Bakken shale fields in North Dakota to Illinois. The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, says the pipeline will be a safer means of transporting oil than truck or rail.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which controls most of the land where the protest camps are located, have said the site must be cleared for safety and health reasons, including concerns that spring snow melt will flood the low-lying area where Oceti Sakowin and Rosebud are located. The Corps of Engineers has said it will take about a month and more than $1 million to clean debris from the area.
The evacuation ended the most visible element of one of the highest-profile environmental protests in memory. Beginning in April of last year, tribal members set up teepees at a protest camp overlooking Lake Oahe, a dammed section of the Missouri River under which the pipeline was to travel.
In time, the Sioux and other tribes filed legal challenges and welcomed thousands of Native American and others to join them in protest.
At its peak, the Oceti Sakowin camp was home to thousands of people who called themselves "water protectors." They ate communal dinners in makeshift mess halls, set up composting toilet operations, endured the brutal summer heat and the even more brutal winter, when temperatures often dropped below zero. Some clashed with law enforcement and about 700 people have been arrested, with many claiming police brutality.
After construction was halted by the Obama administration, which initiated an expanded environmental review of the pipeline's route in its final weeks, construction on the pipeline resumed Feb. 9, less than 24 hours after the Trump administration granted a final easement allowing for completion of the section beneath Lake Oahe.
Hundreds of protesters remained even as construction resumed, though the Standing Rock Sioux encouraged them to leave and focus instead on political and legal efforts across the country. More recently, the Army Corps of Engineers imposed a Wednesday evacuation deadline. After it passed, law enforcement did not immediately enter the camp, though Burgum said that 10 people were arrested later Wednesday.
"We've been very clear that we wanted them to leave," Burgum told reporters at a news conference Wednesday evening. "To be arrested today, you had to be really trying to get it done."
Law enforcement was followed into the camps on Thursday by heavy equipment that was used to quickly begin leveling several wooden structures. The familiar panorama of the camp became a sprawl of law enforcement and large vehicles navigating through campsites, vehicles and debris, much of which had been abandoned weeks ago by protesters.
Some of the last remaining protesters walked across the frozen Cannonball River to the Rosebud camp before retreating further.
"All right, cops are coming in," Tim Schwartz, who live-streamed from his Facebook page, Inspire Bank Exits, said about 9 a.m. Thursday. "Should we go?"
He asked a woman who had been working as a camp medic about her plans.
"We're going to stay here until we can't," she said. "Until they get us or until we're not needed."
Later, a man with a bullhorn bellowed out to the encroaching officers, reminding them that the land the camps were on was originally granted to the Standing Rock Sioux in treaties with the federal government before the tribe was moved to its reservation.
"This is treaty land," he said. "You are trespassing. Please go home. The world is watching."
2:55 p.m.: The story was updated with new details of the clearance operation, and with additional background.