Species distributions can be analysed under two perspectives: the niche-based approach, which focuses on species– environment relationships; and the dispersal-based approach, which focuses on metapopulation dynamics. The degree to which each of these two components affect species distributions may depend on habitat fragmentation, species traits and phylogenetic constraints. We analysed the distributions of 36 stream insect species across 60 stream sites in three drainage basins at high latitudes in Finland. We used binomial generalised linear models (GLMs) in which the predictor variables were environmental factors (E models), within-basin spatial variables as defined by Moran’s eigenvector maps (M models), among-basin variability (B models), or a combination of the three (E + M + B models) sets of variables. Based on a comparative analysis, model performance was evaluated across all the species using Gaussian GLMs whereby the deviance accounted for by binomial GLMs was fitted on selected explanatory variables: niche position, niche breadth, site occupancy, biological traits and taxonomic relatedness. For each type of model, a reduced Gaussian GLM was eventually obtained after variable selection (Bayesian information criterion). We found that niche position was the only variable selected in all reduced models, implying that marginal species were better predicted than non-marginal species. The influence of niche position was strongest in models based on environmental variables (E models) or a combination of all types of variables (E + M + B models), and weakest in spatial autocorrelation models (M models). This suggests that species–environment relationships prevail over dispersal processes in determining stream insect distributions at a regional scale. Our findings have clear implications for biodiversity conservation strategies, and they also emphasise the benefits of considering both the niche-based and dispersal-based approaches in species distribution modelling studies.