Extant species in human-dominated landscapes differ in their sensitivity to habitat loss and fragmentation, although extinctions induced by environmental alteration reduce variation and result in a surviving subset of species with some degree of ‘resistance’. Here, we test the degree to which variable responses to habitat alteration are (1) essentially an inherent property of a taxon subject to constraints imposed by its geographical range, as suggested by Swihart et al. (2003), (2) a function of the landscape in which a species occurs, or (3) a function of spatial trends occurring on large scales. We used data collected on 33 vertebrate species during 2001–04 across the upper Wabash River basin, Indiana, in 35 square ‘landscapes’, each 23 km2 in size. Six species of forest rodent, six species of grassland rodents, seven species of bats, eight species of aquatic turtles, and six species of amphibians were sampled at 504, 212, 590, 228, and 625 patches, respectively. The fraction of patches of primary habitat (e.g. forests for tree squirrels, wetlands for aquatic turtles) occupied by a target species was used as a response variable. On a basin-wide scale, 47% of variation in proportional occupancy among species could be explained by taxon-specific variables; occupancy rates were related positively to niche breadth and negatively to the proximity of a geographical range boundary. After controlling for species effects, landscape-level occupancy rates varied significantly for 16 of 33 species, with variation partitioned among landscape variables alone (mean = 11% of variation), spatial trend variables alone (26%), and both variable sets jointly (8%). Among landscape variables, percentage forest cover positively affected occupancy rates of three bat species and a tree squirrel. Variation in occupancy rates among landscapes was consistent with large-scale spatial trends for 13 species. Our findings demonstrate the general importance of niche breadth as a predictor of species responses to habitat alteration and highlight the importance of viewing the effects of habitat loss and fragmentation at multiple spatial scales.