Hundreds of armed state and local police and National Guard — some on foot and others driving trucks, military Humvees and buses — began the operation at midday and slowly enveloped the camp, arresting more than a dozen protesters who refused to leave.
There were no serious injuries, although one man was hurt in the leg and received treatment from a medic.
Protesters initially set up roadblocks and started some fires to slow the law enforcement advance but eventually retreated.
Morton County Sheriff Kyle Kirchmeier said that the camp had been cleared by nightfall although police were still dealing with protesters on the perimeter, and he said police would stay put for now.
“We’re not leaving the area,” Kirchmeier said. “We are just going to make sure that we maintain a presence in the area so the roadway stays open, and to keep individuals from camping on private land.”
The confrontation marked a major escalation of a protest that has raged for months. Opponents of the pipeline moved in over the weekend to establish a camp on private land where the developer was working to complete the 1,200-mile pipeline designed to carry oil from western North Dakota to Illinois. The route of the pipeline skirts the Standing Rock Reservation and the tribe says it could endanger water supplies and disturb cultural sites. The state of North Dakota says no sensitive cultural sites have been found in the area.
The tribe sought to block the pipeline in court, challenging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ decision granting permits at more than 200 water crossings. But a federal judge in September denied their request to block construction. Three federal agencies then stepped in and ordered construction to halt on Corps-owned land around Lake Oahe, a wide spot of the Missouri River, while the Corps reviewed its decision-making. Construction was allowed to continue on private land owned by developer Energy Transfer Partners.
The operation to push out the protesters began a day after they had refused to leave voluntarily.
The camp is just to the north of a more permanent and larger encampment on federally-owned land which has been the main staging area for hundreds of protesters, including Native Americans from across North America, environmentalists and some celebrities.
Aaron Johnson, 50, a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota, said he and other protesters weren’t happy with the day’s outcome. “I came here for peace and prayer,” he said. “When somebody sets something on fire, that’s not peace and prayer.”
Nicholson reported from Bismarck, North Dakota.