It is important to detect population bottlenecks in threatened and managed species because bottlenecks can increase the risk of population extinction. Early detection is critical and can be facilitated by statistically powerful monitoring programs for detecting bottleneck-induced genetic change. We used Monte Carlo computer simulations to evaluate the power of the following tests for detecting genetic changes caused by a severe reduction in a population's effective size (Ne): a test for loss of heterozygosity, two tests for loss of alleles, two tests for change in the distribution of allele frequencies, and a test for small Ne based on variance in allele frequencies (the ‘variance test’). The variance test was most powerful; it provided an 85% probability of detecting a bottleneck of size Ne = 10 when monitoring five microsatellite loci and sampling 30 individuals both before and one generation after the bottleneck. The variance test was almost 10-times more powerful than a commonly used test for loss of heterozygosity, and it allowed for detection of bottlenecks before 5% of a population's heterozygosity had been lost. The second most powerful tests were generally the tests for loss of alleles. However, these tests had reduced power for detecting genetic bottlenecks caused by skewed sex ratios. We provide guidelines for the number of loci and individuals needed to achieve high-power tests when monitoring via the variance test. We also illustrate how the variance test performs when monitoring loci that have widely different allele frequency distributions as observed in five wild populations of mountain sheep (Ovis canadensis).