Species conservation depends on accurate data, but for many lichens existing collections are geographically biased and contain many taxonomic errors. It is unclear whether ‘non-expert’, systematic monitoring schemes can address these sources of error, particularly for taxonomically challenging lichens (e.g. species requiring chemistry for accurate identification). In this case study we use the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute (ABMI), a large-scale, systematic, multi-taxon monitoring programme, to better understand the ecology and distribution of a putative rare species, Cladonia rei. Collections of C. rei from Alberta dating from 1947 suggested the species was broadly distributed but rare, with seven accessioned specimens. We used comparative morphology, thin-layer chromatography and habitat modelling to compare historical records against more recent material from ABMI surveys. Contrary to the historical collections, ABMI samples suggest C. rei is almost entirely limited to the dry mixed grassland, northern fescue grassland and aspen parkland natural regions, and that within these ecosystems it is relatively common. The typical ecotype exhibited included a persistent primary thallus, podetia with a persistent basal cortex, and secondary squamules; typically they lacked cups, well-developed apothecia and fumarprotocetraric acid, and ramifications were sparse. Cladonia rei was consistently found in pastures and undisturbed grasslands that hosted relatively rich communities of epigeic lichens, thus it does not appear to act as a pioneer in Alberta or to commonly occupy the anthropogenic niches documented elsewhere. In summary, large-scale, systematic, non-targeted monitoring employing novices redressed issues of sample bias through almost 300 C. rei collections, simultaneously improving the ecological understanding of a putative rare species.