• population size;
  • range;
  • rare plants;
  • Red List criteria;
  • survey design;
  • threatened species;
  • uncertainty

Summary Intense pressures on the use and management of land underscore the need for reliable and up-to-date information on the status of native species. The outcomes of the most recent plant population surveys commissioned by agencies are generally limited by faults or omissions in survey design. There is little guidance on how to design and implement field surveys of plant populations in ways that address the most pertinent gaps in our current knowledge and provide answers of known reliability. In this paper, I used the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List criteria as a framework to define the data required from surveys to assess the conservation status of potentially threatened species. The criteria address the location and geographical range of extant populations, aspects of species’ life history, the size and structure of extant populations and rates of change in abundance and range. I have described survey designs and sampling techniques for estimating these parameters. Choices of appropriate methods that consider trade-offs between desired levels of precision and rigour and sampling effort are illustrated using surveys of 13 Tasmanian Epacris species as examples. Key elements of the approach are: (i) systematic approaches to field searches and recording both positive and negative search outcomes; (ii) construction and testing of intuitive or quantitative distribution models in an explicit experimental framework; (iii) rigorous cost-effective sampling designs, systematic field methodologies and simple analytical techniques to estimate both the magnitude and uncertainty of distribution and abundance; (iv) assessment of the merits and limitations of alternative sampling options; and (v) inference of changes in distribution and abundance by judicious use of historical data and field evidence of recent population processes.