Theoretical and empirical work has shown that once reduced in size and geographical range, species face a considerably elevated risk of extinction. We predict minimum viable population sizes (MVP) for 1198 species based on long-term time-series data and model-averaged population dynamics simulations. The median MVP estimate was 1377 individuals (90% probability of persistence over 100 years) but the overall distribution was wide and strongly positively skewed. Factors commonly cited as correlating with extinction risk failed to predict MVP but were able to predict successfully the probability of World Conservation Union Listing. MVPs were most strongly related to local environmental variation rather than a species’ intrinsic ecological and life history attributes. Further, the large variation in MVP across species is unrelated to (or at least dwarfed by) the anthropogenic threats that drive the global biodiversity crisis by causing once-abundant species to decline.