CANNON BALL, North Dakota — Authorities removed all remaining Dakota Access Pipeline protesters from their camp on Thursday.
The final search of the Oceti Sakowin camp — which over the last months has hosted thousands of protesters trying to block construction of the oil pipeline — took about 3 1/2 hours and resulted in about three dozen arrests, the Associated Press reported.
Hundreds of demonstrators on Wednesday at the encampment near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation had been given a deadline to leave the area or face arrest. As the deadline approached, some protesters were seen leaving the area, and a handful of wooden structures used by the demonstrators were set on fire.
An executive evacuation order signed by North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum on Feb. 15 said the encampment would be closed down due to flooding concerns from melting snow in the area.
Burgum’s order said “accumulated debris, including human waste generated by the populations that have occupied the aforementioned areas of Morton and Sioux Counties pose a significant and increasing environmental threat” to the area.
On Wednesday, 10 protesters were taken into custody on suspicion of obstruction of a government function, Maxine Herr, a public information officer with the Morgan County Sheriff's Department, told BuzzFeed News.
Law enforcement formed a line along Highway 1806 and faced off with the final protesters who had refused to leave. Live video from the scene showed about five police officers detaining a man on the ground.
"They're trying to play a game right now, but in the end, if they start to arrest, all they're doing is they're going to try to scare all of us off," one protester told BuzzFeed News.
By 5:30 p.m., however, police appeared to be backing away from the camp area even as some demonstrators defied orders to leave. Some were seen building a fire to stay warm and said they planned to stay overnight.
"The plan is to have the [Army Corps of Engineers] go in tomorrow morning and do more cleaning," Herr said. "We'd really like them [protesters] to leave voluntarily."
The remaining protesters were arrested on Thursday, as more than 200 officers in addition to 18 National Guardsmen methodically searched the camp.
Activists in support of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe succeeded in their efforts to oppose the pipeline when, on Dec. 4, the US Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would no longer allow the pipeline to cross under Lake Oahe, considered a sacred and crucial water source for the tribe.
On Feb. 7, the Army announced that it would grant an easement for the construction of the pipeline.
Dan Nanamkin of the Colville Nez Perce tribe spoke to BuzzFeed News about the closure.
"We already know from the past what they are going to do," he said. "We realize the force and the brutality that they're going to come in at."
"The stand is not over tomorrow," he added.
Scores of other protesters — some of whom have occupied the area for six months — were faced with the tough decision to leave or stay. Some told BuzzFeed News they could not risk arrest.
Authorities had anticipated that some of the protesters would try to stay beyond the Wednesday evacuation deadline, and they bolstered their presence as a result. Hours before the evacuation was set to begin, protesters took to burning down some of the structures.
Some of the traditional structures, which were ceremoniously built, were ceremoniously burned down as protesters who have camped for months left Wednesday evening.
"People have said their last prayers, and offered cedar to the sacred fire and are also burning these structures we have ceremonially built, so they must be ceremonially removed," Vanessa Castle of the Lower Elwha Klallam tribe told the Seattle Times. "They cannot be bulldozed, no other hands or malice of bad intentions can touch them."
Another protester, Noah Michael of the Octei Sakowin camp, expressed his appreciation for those who supported Standing Rock from afar.
He added that the day of evacuation also marked the first day in the new fight against the pipeline.
North Dakota National Guard spokesperson Amber Balken told BuzzFeed News that 130 guardsmen remained in active duty at the site. Overall, the state’s National Guard has spent more than $8.7 million deploying members to the area since Aug. 10, 2016, according to a memo sent to BuzzFeed News.
In an interview on CNN, Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota State Patrol said those who chose to remain at the encampment past the deadline would “be subject to arrest and fines.”
Iverson added that state patrol officers would offer wellness checks for the protesters exiting the camp, as well as a ride out of the site and a bus ticket, both free of charge.
“We need to make sure we have adequate resources to not only keep our officers safe but to keep all the onlookers safe, protesters safe, and everybody involved safe," he said. "That's what this is about, public safety."
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the US Army for more information.