Since October 2004, the Ministère du développement durable, de l'environnement et des parcs du Québec has been supporting McGill University's mission to protect for future generations its Mont Saint-Hilaire property by recognizing the Gault Nature Reserve as an official nature reserve under the Natural Heritage Conservation Act.
Louis Handfield, a resident of Mont-Saint-Hilaire, is an amateur lepidopterist. For nearly 30 years, he has collected various species of butterfly that can be found in Quebec and Canada. His exceptional efforts have helped identify over 800 species of macrolepidoptera in the Mont Saint-Hilaire region. Such wealth is undoubtedly the result of the diversity of habitat and host plants that can be found on the mountain. According to Mr. Handfield, 130 of these species are rare or local.
Coleopterans represent about 40% of insect species. They occupy every imaginable habitat. These insects possess two pairs of wings. The outermost pair of wings, the elytra, form a hard carapace, protecting the insect and the inner wings used for flight.
A study conducted after the ice storm aimed to investigate the current and future health status of maple stands using xylophagous and saproxylophagous coleopterans as bioindicators. The incidence of such storms can increase these insect populations. 69% of the insects collected were xylophagous (feeding on wood), and only 11% were saproxylophagous (feeding on dead and decomposing plants and animals). A total of 69 insect species were collected in this fairly brief survey, of which 17 were found only in this forest, which has been qualified as diversified from an entomological point of view.
The most frequently observed mammals at Mont Saint-Hilaire are chipmunks, squirrels, raccoons and porcupines.
The old-growth forests provide choice habitats for other more reclusive species. Some are mostly active at night, like flying squirrels and bats. Others are more fearful, avoiding human contact like coyotes and white-tailed deer.
Some unexpected visitors made an appearance in 1999. A bobcat, a possibly threatened species in Quebec, and a female moose were seen briefly in the forests of Mont Saint-Hilaire. It is believed that they moved on to larger habitats.
In spring and fall, Mont Saint-Hilaire welcomes many migratory bird species. Hundreds of ducks, geese and bluebills stop to rest on Lake Hertel. Hundreds of migrating birds of prey also fly over the region during these periods.
More than 200 species of birds have been identified on the mountain. Migratory birds, breeding birds and residents make use of the habitat on Mont Saint-Hilaire.
Probably the most striking bird of prey at Mont Saint-Hilaire is the peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus). A couple can be seen nesting on the Dieppe Cliffs every year. There are only 10 successful nesting sites in Quebec for this endangered species, and Mont Saint-Hilaire is the best. The species is especially disturbed by human activity near its nesting site, which is why access to the cliffs at Mont Saint-Hilaire is strictly forbidden.
Reptiles and Amphibians
On Mont Saint-Hilaire, there are four species of salamanders, eight species of frogs, two species of snakes and two species of turtle.
Although these species are relatively well protected on the Gault Nature Reserve, these populations are still very fragile. Amphibians are especially sensitive to pollution and loss of habitat. For example, the dusky salamander (Desmognathus fuscus) and the western chorus frog (Pseudacris triseriata) have now disappeared from Mont Saint-Hilaire. Because of their popularity as pets, reptiles and amphibians are also threatened by illegal collection. The popularity of vivariums has weakened these populations. Is it not better and fantastic to observe these animals in their natural habitat?
The Mont Saint-Hilaire forest is situated in a sugar maple-hickory stand in the mildest and most diversified zone in Quebec.
The dominant tree species are sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and American beech (Fagus grandifolia). This forest has not been disturbed much by human activity. It is an old forest. Some of the maples are more than 400 years old. The surface area occupied by the region’s sugar maple-hickory stand has shrunk considerably since colonization. As a result of urban development and agriculture, only 5% of the habitat is still intact. Mont Saint-Hilaire is among the 13 remaining tracts of old-growth forest that are still intact.
Old ecosystems such as this one are extremely rare. It is therefore an important site for biodiversity conservation in this part of North America.
The Mont Saint-Hilaire flora is particularly rich and diversified. There are more than 600 species of vascular plants. Several rare and threatened species can be found here. Twenty-one (21) species have been designated as at-risk, and two (2) are endangered.
The species are mostly from the following major families: Asteraceae (11%), Rosaceae (7%), Cyperaceae (7%) and Poaceae (7%). Ferns account for 6% of the vascular plants found on the mountain.
Bryophytes, non-vascular plants (mosses and liverworts)
Bryophytes are the oldest photosynthetic organisms typically found in terrestrial habitats. This group, probably originating from algae, developed structures enabling it to colonize on land. There are three distinct classes of bryophytes: mosses, liverworts and hornworts. At Mont Saint-Hilaire, there are 212 species of moss and 36 species of liverworts.
Lichens result from the symbiosis between a fungus and a photosynthetic microorganism (bacterium, alga). The fungus part supports the algae’s growth and, in turn, provides the fungus with carbohydrates from photosynthesis. Precipitation supplies most of their nutritional needs. They can grow on various substrates (rock, bark, leaves, soil, wood). There are nearly 20,000 species of lichens. At Mont Saint-Hilaire, 54 lichen species have been identified, many of them rare.
Lichens are particularly sensitive to air pollution. Therefore, they are very useful bioindicators in monitoring the state of evolution of our environment.