The six-month standoff near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation appeared to be coming to an end Wednesday as most of the Dakota Access pipeline protesters heeded the order to get off the federal land near the Missouri River.
In a parting gesture, some of the tents and makeshift wooden housing were set ablaze before the 2 p.m. local time (3 p.m. ET) deadline to depart came and went. Then most of the remaining 300 or so pipeline opponents — down from the thousands at the height of the sometimes violent protests — began to leave.
Jenni Monet, a journalist who has been arrested while covering the months-long standoff, said the protesters were fully aware they would wind up in handcuffs if they tried to stay.
"Anyone left on the federally managed historic treaty lands will be subject to citations and arrest," she said. "Charges remain unclear. Water protectors fear felonies are a possibility."
Monet said burning the tents was a way of cleansing the camp.
"For some Indigenous peoples, when traditional dwellings are erected they are not dismantled in a conventional way," Monet said. "They are taken apart in a ceremonial way and that ceremonial way is by burning."
Monet said that for the last holdouts the falling snow was a sign that all was not yet lost.
"The snow blanketed 1851 treaty territory as if prayers were being answered," she said, referring to the 1851 Fort Laramie Treaty that assigned territory to the Native American tribes in the area.
Earlier, North Dakota officials set up a travel assistance center and began providing bus fare, food and hotel vouchers to get the demonstrators out of the area. The first buses from the camp to the city of Bismarck began rolling out at 9 a.m. CT.
But a huge police presence remained at the scene in the event that the most hardcore protesters — who consider themselves "water protectors" — tried to make a final stand.
The Sioux tribes, backed by environmental activists, had been protesting since August against plans by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners to build a 1,170-mile pipeline that would transport 470,000 barrels of oil a day across their territory.
Arguing that an oil spill would contaminate the reservation’s water supply and destroy sacred sites where their ancestors are buried, the Native Americans and their allies furiously opposed a pipeline proposal that was backed by the state’s Republican leadership.
Defenders of the $3.7 billion project, which is already 70 percent completed, claimed it would inject millions of dollars into local economies and create anywhere from 8,000 to 12,000 construction jobs.
In the months that followed, there were repeated clashes between demonstrators and police that left hundreds injured — as well as demonstrations across the country in solidarity, like the National Day of Action on Nov. 15.
The Obama administration gave the Native Americans a short-lived victory on Dec. 4 with the announcement that it would not grant the energy company an easement to continue the construction.
"This is something that will go down in history, and I know that it's a blessing for all indigenous peoples," Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault II told NBC News at the time.
But on his second day in office, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum giving the pipeline project the green light. And on Feb. 7, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, approved the easement.
The pipeline will connect the oil producing areas in North Dakota to a crude oil terminal in Patoka, Illinois.