Palisade High School student Serena Flannigan kisses a razorback sucker as students Charlotte Allen and Kiera Stephen help others release the endangered fish species into the Colorado River during the school hatchery’s release event Friday, May 3, 2024, at Riverbend Park in Palisade. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun- Palisade, Colorado– With squeals, shrieks and plenty of peer pressure, Palisade High School students lined up to release endangered razorback suckers — with a kiss for good luck — into the Colorado River.

“Grab a fish, kiss it, put it in the river,” Charlotte Allen, 18, a senior at the high school, told amped up students as they prepared to hold the slippery fish.

The school’s endangered fish hatchery, which began in 2020, released its thousandth razorback sucker Friday during its annual release celebration. The program is part of a greater effort to restore populations of the native fish — an effort that helps pull water west in Colorado to benefit ecosystems, farmers, communities and industries along the Colorado River.

For the students, it’s a way to pursue scientific research, connect with their environment and even test out future careers.

“Raising these fish during my four years at Palisade High School has opened my eyes to a whole new world of conservation,” Kale Potter, 17, a Palisade senior and hatchery technician, told a crowd of more than 200 students, community members, wildlife officials, parents and teachers.

Patrick Steele, a science teacher and hatchery manager at Palisade High School, speaks during the school hatchery’s annual release celebration Friday, May 3, 2024, at Riverbank Park in Palisade. Steele helped create the endangered fish hatchery program at the high school. (Shannon Mullane, The Colorado Sun)

Almost a decade ago, Mike Gross, a fish culturist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, brought the idea of creating a school-based hatchery to science teacher Pat Steele, and the two spent five years planning it out. Eager students sold peaches and local organizations came together to raise enough money to start the program. The hatchery tanks were filled with their first batch of fish in August 2020.Four years later, biologists are finding razorback suckers raised at Palisade High School among other fish at spawning locations — a positive sign as wildlife managers try to boost the species’ population to sustainable levels.

“I think the more we’re able to get students outside and the more that we’re getting them in touch with our natural surroundings is important,” Steele said. “That’s always been a goal of mine.”