The largest private donation in Assiniboine Park's history is expected to cover a sizable chunk of the $58-million tab for building what's bound to be one of Winnipeg's biggest tourist attractions.
The Assiniboine Park Conservancy is expected to announce a gift of $5 million this morning to help complete Assiniboine Park Zoo's new Journey to Churchill exhibit, which will include a state-of-the-art polar bear enclosure when it opens in 2013.
Previously announced plans for the exhibit include a polar bear enclosure with above-ground and underwater viewing areas, a 360-degree aurora borealis theatre, motorized tundra-buggy tours, a rooftop tundra garden, new concessions and the $8-million International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. The latter facility allows the zoo to house orphaned or injured polar bears, which would otherwise be destroyed, and acclimatize them for life in other zoos.
The new public exhibit will allow the zoo to put polar bears on display for the first time since the death of 42-year-old Debby in 2008. Her old enclosure no longer met Manitoba Conservation standards for the species, which meant the iconic Arctic carnivore could not be housed in the largest zoo in a province that bills itself the polar bear capital of the world.
In 2010, the provincial government announced $31 million in funding for the Journey to Churchill exhibit — $25 million for the polar bear enclosure and $6 million for the conservation centre, which also has research and educational components.
Today's multimillion-dollar donor was the Richardson Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Winnipeg's Richardson family. Hartley Richardson is chairman of the Assiniboine Park Conservancy board.
The zoo upgrades are part of a larger $200-million makeover of Assiniboine Park that will also include $42 million in additional zoo reconstruction, a new $50-million conservatory to replace the dilapidated botanical building and $40 million worth of improvements to park roads, land drainage and other infrastructure.
The conservancy has also spent $10 million building a new nature playground, duck pond and family centre in the heart of the park.
Although city and provincial tourism officials have high hopes for the entire park, the Journey to Churchill exhibit is expected to attract visitors to Manitoba who do not have the time or money to travel to Churchill by rail or air during polar bear season.
On a darker note, conservation officials foresee a not-so-distant future when the only polar bears that remain in Manitoba will reside in Assiniboine Park Zoo.
The western Hudson Bay population of polar bears is the only one of the world's 19 ursus maritimus populations that spends their summers almost entirely on land, where their primary food source — seals — is not available. Longer ice-free seasons have resulted in fewer seal-blubber meals, thinner bears and ultimately fewer births, according to wildlife biologists who study the Churchill area.
As a result, the western Hudson Bay subpopulation of polar bears, estimated at 935 animals in 2004, is expected to decline over the next 25 to 30 years to the point where there are not enough bears to sustain a breeding population, according to biologist Ian Stirling, the world's foremost expert on the species.
Updated on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 at 8:15 AM CDT: Adds reaction from Assiniboine Park Conservancy.
10:20 AM: Removes reaction from Assiniboine Park COnservancy in wake of press conference; dollar figure of donation changed to $5M
11:10 AM: Adds photo from donation announcement
1:17 PM: Corrects spelling of Benidickson in cutline