To effectively manage rare populations, accurate monitoring data are critical. Yet many monitoring programs are initiated without careful consideration of whether chosen sampling designs will provide accurate estimates of population parameters. Obtaining accurate estimates is especially difficult when natural variability is high, or limited budgets determine that only a small fraction of the population can be sampled. The Missouri bladderpod, Lesquerella filiformis Rollins, is a federally threatened winter annual that has an aggregated distribution pattern and exhibits dramatic interannual population fluctuations. Using the simulation program SAMPLE, we evaluated five candidate sampling designs appropriate for rare populations, based on 4 years of field data: (1) simple random sampling, (2) adaptive simple random sampling, (3) grid-based systematic sampling, (4) adaptive grid-based systematic sampling, and (5) GIS-based adaptive sampling. We compared the designs based on the precision of density estimates for fixed sample size, cost, and distance traveled. Sampling fraction and cost were the most important factors determining precision of density estimates, and relative design performance changed across the range of sampling fractions. Adaptive designs did not provide uniformly more precise estimates than conventional designs, in part because the spatial distribution of L. filiformis was relatively widespread within the study site. Adaptive designs tended to perform better as sampling fraction increased and when sampling costs, particularly distance traveled, were taken into account. The rate that units occupied by L. filiformis were encountered was higher for adaptive than for conventional designs. Overall, grid-based systematic designs were more efficient and practically implemented than the others. ?? 2008 The Society of Population Ecology and Springer.