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GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- Nine snowy owls have been shot at the Ford International Airport now an online petition is calling on them to stop.

Airport officials say it is a matter of safety.

"The airport and I think all regions in North America are seeing a year of snowy owls that we have never seen before," explained Tara Hernandez, spokesperson for the Ford International Airport. Hernandez saysthere has been afour-fold increase in the number of snowy owls living and hunting around the runaways.

The snowy owl is an arctic bird that winters in the south. The bird likes large flat tundra-looking areas, which is one of the reasons the airport has become a popular owl hangout. The birds seem not to show fear in the face of large aircraft taking off and landing within their vicinity and have been known to hang out on the white lines on the runway.

This is a problem for planes and airport officials are well aware of the risks. "We had a snowy owl strike with an Airbus," explains Hernandez. "That strike happened in 2009."

Any bird hitting an aircraft can be dangerous, but a snowy owl is a large bird with a wingspan up to five feet long. "I don't want to be in an aircraft with a wing span like that would fly into an aircraft," Hernandez said.

To deal with the birds we followed airport officials out as they used many non-lethal techniques, including honking the birds off the runway, shooting flares to scare them away, and setting up traps to capture and relocate the birds. But this year they also shot and killedsnowy owls.

"The very last method is to take them lethally," explained Hernandez. The killing of the snowy owl has upset some people and last week a petition was started on change.org calling for the killing to stop.

PETITION: http://chn.ge/KJdEEx

Lori Lomoro works at the Blandford Nature Center to protect and rescue owls. "You have to put safety into perspective, but I also think if we can trap them and move them, that should be the priority whenever possible."

Lomoro says she fears people might think it isOK to shoot the snowy owl because the airport can. However, snowy owls can only be killed with a special permit, which the airport has.

With human lives on the line, airport officials say they will do anything necessary to keep passengers safe and will only use lethal means if non-lethal methods aren't working.