A short water taxi ride away from Tofino’s busy docks lies the ancient village of Opitsaht, where an unlikely and unwanted gift from the past has become a beloved guest in this community’s future.
“Oh yeah, I love the cows, yeah,” said Opitsaht resident Larry Alfred Williams Jr.
“Yeah, the little cows that could, I guess,” said Tlaoquiaht Tribal Parks’ natural resources manager, Saya Masso.
According to Masso, Opitsaht has been occupied by Tla-o-qui-aht people for 8,000 to 10,000 years. But the cows came around 1900 when missionaries tried to change the Island’s fishermen into farmers.
“Some cows were given to some families here to try to make farming a thing here, and that didn’t really take because we’re fishermen,” said Masso.
The missionaries left, but the cows remained.
“No one ever really took them into a fenced area or corralled them, and they’ve just been wild ever since, really,” said Masso.
“This is quite what they would have looked like as a herd 100 years ago, so it is unique.”
The rugged, even gnarly-looking herd ranges from eight to 10 animals. At low tide, they eat the slim pickings of grass in the village and the occasional fruit from residents like Larry Alfred Williams Jr.
“They like oranges and apples,” said Williams Jr.
But most of their diet involves a mosey down for dinner on the beach, where they graze on the abundant and salty seaweed that Opitsaht’s beaches reveal at low tide.
“They survive really well eating the low tide seagrass. We all like sometimes eating kelp and stuff for sushi. Yeah, I can see how eating the seagrass would be a delicacy for them,” said Masso.
This historic herd’s adaptation to eating seaweed is now the focus of researchers at the University of Calgary. Previous studies in the United States have revealed that cows eating seaweed produce 82 per cent less methane than regular cows.
“Protein and beef is a big thing for the planet, so if this herd can help solve that riddle, that would be amazing. They might change the diet for all cows in the world,” said Masso.
“You never know, right?”