Summary Assessment of the conservation significance of a species at a particular site involves estimating the population size. Generally this is based on a single survey. However, where plant species vary greatly in abundance in response to disturbance regimes, there will be uncertainty associated with the use of single estimates of abundance. The interpretation of such estimates is dependent on an understanding of the ecology of the species and the disturbance regimes that impact on it. We examined the usefulness of abundance estimates in the endangered shrub Grevillea caleyi (a fire-sensitive shrub with a persistent soil seed bank) from south-eastern Australia, where fire is a major landscape disturbance. Comparisons of estimates of abundance before and after fire showed very large changes in the number of plants of G. caleyi above ground. Changes in abundance of over two orders of magnitude were observed. The longer the site was left unburnt, the greater the magnitude of change in abundance after the next fire. Above-ground plants may be rare or absent at sites unburnt for over 15–20 years, but were abundant after fire, due to re-establishment from the soil seed bank. Sites burnt by two fires in quick succession showed declines in population abundance, most likely due to the soil seed bank not being replenished between such short interval fires. Assessments of the conservation significance of remnant sites of G. caleyi and similar species based on a single sample of above-ground plant abundance at one time are considered inappropriate. The amount of available habitat for G. caleyi, either as area of occupancy or preferably extent of available habitat, was a moderate predictor of the likely magnitude of abundance in the species after fire. However, the usefulness of these measures for species whose biology is comparable to Grevillea caleyi, will be limited due to factors relating to the degree of species-specific habitat requirements, local site fire history and the impact of any one fire on resultant post-fire germination levels. Any assessment of conservation significance will require the interpretation of available information in relation to the ecology of a species.