Three rare plants found in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee are now protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The plants, which are listed as endangered, are the fleshy-fruit gladecress, whorled sunflower, and Short's bladderpod, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reported Friday.

The agency blamed the declining 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 diversity has also made these plant species particularly vulnerable to extinction.

"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," Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the Southeast Region of US Fish and Wildlife, told Reuters.

According to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) report, the whorled sunflower (Helianthus verticillatus) grows in moist, prairie-like remnants - such as areas adjacent to creeks - mostly in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

Short's bladderpod (Physaria globosa), 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," Ben Prater, director of conservation for Wild South, a Southeast conservation non-profit, which works in the Bankhead, told Reuters.

The FWS said the ultimate goal of the new ESA ruling is to help these listed plants recover to the point that they no longer need federal protection, according to the agency's news release . The next step is to develop recovery plans to provide guidance for wildlife officials to address threats to the plants' survival and recovery.

Federal landowners must comply with the new ESA decision to protect these plants on their land. It is illegal to remove from federal lands plants that are listed as endangered under the ESA, or to import, export or sell such plants without first consulting with the service.