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The zoo's last polar bear, Debby, is seen in her enclosure in December 2006, during celebrations of her 40th birthday.

Officials held a snow-turning in Winnipeg at the site of what will be a world-class international polar bear conservation centre and Arctic exhibit.

Artificial snow was brought in for officials to shovel as a symbolic start to the construction.

The facility at the Assiniboine Park Zoo, first announced in December, will provide a home for orphaned, injured or problem polar bears.

There will also be an educational and environmental research component.

The Manitoba government is putting up a total of $31 million for the project.

Of that, $4.5 million is earmarked for the conservation centre — which will serve as the headquarters of Polar Bears International — while more than $26 million will go to construction of the polar-bear Arctic exhibit.

The exhibit will include a polar bear enclosure large enough for six bears, and feature underwater and above-ground viewing opportunities.

It will be 20 times larger than the current enclosure, which became vacant when the zoo's popular polar bear, 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.

Renovations to that enclosure, as well as the zoo's black bear enclosure, will begin this month. Those spaces will be turned into an orphaned polar-bear cub rescue centre, while the black bears will be relocated to a new enclosure elsewhere in the zoo.

The renovations are scheduled be completed by the end of 2010 while the goal is to have the new polar bear conservation centre and exhibit open by 2013.

There are about 935 polar bears living in the western Hudson Bay area. Climate change is being blamed for a declining population because warmer weather means the bears have less time on the ice to feed on seals.

Manitoba declared polar bears an endangered species two years ago.

With files from The Canadian Press