Abstract In both percolation models and metapopulation (habitat patch) models, habitat pattern is assumed to be fixed and binary (matrix is unsuitable). In percolation models movement (dispersal) is strictly to neighbors whereas in metapopulation models movement is not explicitly considered but is factored into the colonization coefficients. Models with explicit dispersal also typically treat habitat as binary. Disturbance, if considered, is usually assumed to affect only preferred habitat. In this study, a dispersal kernel is assumed with spatially explicit populations and habitat, and the matrix is assumed to be affected by disturbances or fluctuating environmental conditions that open sites for dispersers (e.g., seeds) on a temporary basis. These ephemeral habitat patches are shown to act as stepping stones between preferred habitat. The consequence of stepping stones in this case is an increase in persistence when remnant preferred habitat is rare, and the conversion of extinction scenarios into persistence scenarios in some cases. The utilization of stepping stones by a species leads to nonintuitive relationships between observed abundance and habitat preference that could cause conservation strategies to backfire.