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Debby is seen in her enclosure in Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo in December 2006, during celebrations of her 40th birthday.

A new polar bear rescue shelter and polar bear exhibit will be the centrepieces of a conservation centre to be constructed at Winnipeg's Assiniboine Park Zoo.

Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger announced the plan, as well as a contribution of $31 million, on Thursday.

Construction on the centre, which will include a state-of-the-art polar bear enclosure, will start in 2011, said Hartley Richardson, board chair of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy.

The enclosure will have underwater and above-ground viewing opportunities to enable visitors to come face to face with up to six bears, he said.

It will be part of a new arctic exhibit that will also feature caribou, arctic fox, snowy owls and musk oxen, said Selinger.

The zoo has been without a polar bear since its long-time resident, Debby, died in 2008 at age 42. The zoo has not been able to get another polar bear because its enclosure no longer met provincial standards.

Polar bear research

The first of its kind in North America, the polar bear centre will conduct and co-ordinate polar bear rescue research, conservation and public education initiatives, said Selinger.

It will also co-ordinate a relocation network that will facilitate the process for permanently placing orphaned or injured animals in qualifying zoos.

"As the home of Churchill, the world's polar bear capital, there is no better place than Manitoba to host this centre of research and education on the impact climate change is having on our polar bears," Selinger said.

'As the home of Churchill, the world's polar bear capital, there is no better place than Manitoba to host this centre of research and education on the impact climate change is having on our polar bears.'—Premier Greg Selinger

Added Richardson: "Manitoba has been a world leader in the management of polar bears, which have become an international symbol for climate change's effects on the world. We are very pleased to see this exciting initiative is moving forward."

Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization dedicated to the worldwide conservation of polar bears and their Arctic habitat, applauded the province on the plans and leadership involving the animals.

"The Polar Bear Alert program and the Manitoba standards for polar bears in zoos are just two examples of this leadership," said Robert Buchanan, CEO of Polar Bears International.

"By providing funding for the international polar bear conservation centre, Manitoba will remain on the cutting edge in terms of polar bear research and stewardship."

Assiniboine Park Conservancy is a non-profit corporation mandated to establish a vision for the park, create a plan to ensure it realizes its visions and govern the implementation of strategies toward the revitalization and transformation of the park.

Up-to-date information on polar bears, such as Manitoba's Polar Bear Protection Act, the animal's habitat and migration background, as well as links to a variety of animal educational organizations, is now available through the Manitoba government.