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Warning comes with polar bears' exit Move of 2 to facilitate zoo project holds risk of turning permanent

The Buffalo Zoo will be without polar bears by early next year when it moves forward with an $18 million project to construct a new entrance plaza and an expanded arctic habitat.

The zoo's two polar bears, Nanuq and Anana, are scheduled to move to other zoos later this year and early next to prepare for the construction of the new polar bear exhibit designed to meet modern standards.

But Donna M. Fernandes, the zoo's president and CEO, warned county lawmakers Tuesday that the two bears might not come back if the zoo falls behind in its schedule to build the new polar bear habitat.

"They're moving either way," Fernandes said of the two bears. "But it's just a decision of the placement. Is it going to be a permanent placement, or is it going to be a temporary placement?"

Zoo officials hope the bears will be gone for less than two years, but they face the possibility that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums will decide to permanently move the bears if it appears that the Buffalo Zoo is not making progress on a plan to improve the polar bear habitat, Fernandes said.

Construction is slated to begin in July on the first phase of the project, a $4 million plan to turn a 1940s barn near the zoo's parking lot into a new entrance plaza. The zoo hopes to complete that portion of the project by April 2013.

Whether construction on the second phase of the project -- a $14 million plan to build a new arctic habitat with expanded polar bear exhibits -- will begin in June 2013 will depend on the zoo's ability to raise the rest of the money for the project.

The zoo currently has commitments of $12.2 million toward the total project cost of $18 million, Fernandes said. That includes $3 million from Erie County and $535,000 from the City of Buffalo, as well state funding and pledges from donors.

County lawmakers late last year scaled back a proposal from then-County Executive Chris Collins to give $6 million in county surplus funds to the zoo for the construction project. Instead, they agreed to commit $3 million that the county will borrow through long-term bonds.

Fernandes told members of the County Legislature's Community Enrichment Committee on Tuesday that she hopes the county can provide another $3 million for the project.

"I'm here to ask for you to consider that second $3 million," Fernandes told legislators. "I don't see how we're going to get to $18 million by the end of this year unless we do get that $6 million that was originally requested."

The new exhibit, which will be called "Arctic Edge," will include space for up to four adult polar bears, as well as arctic wolves, lynx, a bald eagle and other arctic ground birds. It will be designed to meet updated standards set by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, as well as Canadian standards that will allow the Buffalo Zoo to take in orphaned polar bear cubs.

Legislators urged Fernandes to bring her proposal to County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz as he develops priorities for large capital projects for next year.

"If you fall short, what is Plan B?" asked Legislator Kevin R. Hardwick, R-City of Tonawanda. Fernandes said the zoo's bear exhibits would remain empty until all of the money could be raised and construction could begin.

"We would have a big eyesore in the middle of the zoo until we could move forward with construction," Fernandes said.

The new polar bear habitat would replace the concrete areas where the polar bears are currently kept with a more natural setting that includes two saltwater pools. Visitors would be able to see the polar bears underwater through a window, and children would be able to view the bears as they sleep in a cave area.

Fernandes has told county lawmakers that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums cited the existing polar bear exhibit as a "major concern" last June because it did not meet new standards.

She told legislators Tuesday that the association's Species Survival Plan Program would make a determination in September about where the two polar bears would go during construction.

The male, Nanuq, is slated to leave for another zoo in the fall. The female, Anana, will leave in January before next year's breeding season, unless she is pregnant. In that case, she would not move until after the cubs are born.

"If she's not pregnant, she just leaves sooner," Fernandes said. "They don't want her to give birth at a new place. That would be very stressful for her."