By Verna Gates
Bristol Tenn. (Reuters) - A variety of sunflower found in some Southern states and two other rare plants were designated on Friday as endangered species by the U.S. federal government.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the whorled sunflower, Short’s bladderpod and fleshy-fruit gladecress for protection under the Endangered Species Act because populations of the three are dwindling to critical levels.
The agency blamed the trend on a loss of natural habitats due to construction, damage from off-road vehicles and fluctuating water levels, as well as competition from invasive, non-native plants. A lack of genetic variety and relative scarcity of the plants have made the three species particularly vulnerable to extinction, it said.
"Our goal is not to let anything die out. We do not have all of the knowledge to know what we can lose and what it is there for," said Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the Southeast Region of U.S. Fish and Wildlife.
The whorled sunflower - sometimes called the giant sunflower - grows in open pastures and along roadsides, mostly in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.
A moist prairie plant, it has dwindled due to fire-suppression and agriculture, said Scot Duncan, a biology professor at Birmingham-Southern College and author of Southern Wonder, a book on Southern ecology.
Short's bladderpod, a member of the mustard family found in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee, lives mostly in craggy outcroppings of dry limestone cliffs and cedar glades.
The gladecress population is limited to the Bankhead National Forest of Alabama, in a place called Indian Tomb Hollow.
"Indian Tomb Hollow is a special place with lots of unique flora and fauna. It is exciting news to see it get the protection it deserves," said Ben Prater, director of conservation for Wild South, a Southeast conservation non-profit, which works in the Bankhead.
The plants will receive final federal designation on Sept. 2.
(Editing By Frank McGurty and Sandra Maler)