When established conservation programs expand and evolve, management practices may become inconsistent with program goals. In the past decade, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association expanded species conservation programs by increasing the number of Species Survival Plans (SSP) and establishing more than 300 new Population Management Plan (PMP) programs. However, limited space in captive breeding facilities forces a competition among SSPs and less intensively managed PMPs. Regional Collection Plans establish priorities and allocate space accordingly by setting target population size for each species; species of high conservation priority (SSPs) are allocated space at the expense of lower priority species (PMPs). Because population size and genetic composition interact to impact population viability, target population size is a significant factor to a population’s prospects for long-term survival. We examined four population parameters (current population size, target population size, current gene diversity, and mean generation time) for 46 mammalian SSPs and 17 PMPs. Relative to SSPs, PMPs combine smaller current and target population sizes, lower levels of current gene diversity, and shorter mean generation times than SSPs. Thus, the average PMP population can expect to lose gene diversity more rapidly than the average SSP population. PMPs are projected to lose 10% or more of their founding gene diversity, within only 2 years. In contrast, the average SSP population is projected to lose 10% in 40 years. Populations with small current or target population sizes require intensive management to avoid extinction. More intensive genetic management of populations typically designated as PMPs, through recruitment of potential founders and equalization of founder representation, could increase gene diversity and improve viability. Less rigorous population management should be reserved for populations whose long-term survival is either secure or that can be readily replenished from the wild. Because PMP populations need intense genetic management similar to that currently in effect for SSPs, there should be neither a management-level distinction between programs nor an arbitrary difference in space allocated to programs. Zoo Biol 20:169–183, 2001. © 2001 Wiley-Liss, Inc.